Skip to main content

Full text of "ALCHEMY JACK LINDSAY"

See other formats


JRCH 

unosRV 

THE ORIGINS OF 


oiruFmu 











































THE ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY 
IN ROMAN EGYPT 


In this, the first thorough enquiry into the 
origins of alchemy in Roman Egypt, 
Jack Lindsay covers the crafc techniques 
and mystery lore of metallurgy i in¬ 
dustries of the ancient world, allied 
industries such as dyeing and mining etc., 
myth and speculation surrounding creation 
and the nature of the universe, the giu wth of 
interest in magnetism, the development in 
systems of physics among the Stoics, which 
have reappeared in modern times, and the 
growth of gnostic and hermetic cults of 
contact with the spirit-world. 

Lindsay describes how all these ele¬ 
ments came together as a part of the 
general culture development of Graeco- 
Roman society and how the impasse it 
reached was linked with technological 
failure and the inability of Greek thought 
to develop beyond its geometrical basis 
with allied maths and atomic mechanism. 
The result is a welcome addition to 
Lindsay’s Roman Egypt series which 
breaks new ground and presents a valu¬ 
able survey of a fascinating subject. 


MULLER 

£5.00 net 


SBN 584 10005 1 











Jack Lindsay 


THE ORIGINS 
OF ALCHEMY IN 
GRAECO-ROMAN 
EGYPT 



FREDERICK MULLER 





First published in Great Britain 1970 by 
Frederick Muller Ltd., Fleet Street, London, E.C.4 

Copyright © 1970 by Jack Lindsay 


All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, 
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, 
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without 
the prior permission of Frederick Muller Limited. 



Printed in Great Britain by 
Ebene^er Baylis and Son, Ltd. 

The Trinity Press, Worcester, and London 
Bound by Wm. Brendon & Son Ltd. 

ISBN o 584 10005 1 


To 

Marie Delcourt-Curvers 

This solid flesh a circling smoke 
in winds of bellying Time 
haunts crevices of Space and seems 
anchored here or there: 

Men have thought the prospect strange 
demonic scaring as they woke 
from a ravishing crystalline dream 
of abstract Eternities 
to touch the edges of Change 
where all Numbers twist and break: 

yet Pattern lurks in the vanishing lair 

of ragged particles. Alchemists 

first kept the double vision and reckoned 

as aspects of a single Stream 

the Vortices of spinning mist 

and the Structure of the unseeable second 

when Life leaps tipwards through the range 

of fiery unstable Symmetries, 

intricate dangerous Time. 

Time 

is the moving 

image of Eternity 
Plato remarked among the Stars. 

Eternity 

is the sudden 

wholeness of Time 
Apollo answers amid the Flowers. 






Contents 



Author’s Note 

Page 

xii 

I 

Greek Scientific Thought before Alchemy 

i 

2 

Historical References 

24 

} 

More Historical References 

5i 

4 

The Name Alchemy 

68 

5 

Demokritos and Bolos of Mendes 

9° 

6 

More on Bolos 

iii 

7 

Ostanes 

131 

8 

Hermes Trismegistos 

159 

9 

Isis 

194 

10 

Ancient and Contemporary Crafts 

212 

ii 

Maria the Jewess 

240 

12 

Kleopatra 

253 

1} 

Womb Furnace and Vase 

278 

>4 

Agathodaimon 

301 


Zosimos 

323 

16 

More on Zosimos 

343 

17 

The Later Greek Alchemists 

358 

l8 

Conclusions 

382 


Notes 

393 


Bibliography 

433 


Index 

441 






Illustrations 


I Page 

r I Mithraic mosaic of the Seven Gates at Ostia 26 

f t Mithras born from the rock. Mages on a relief at Daskylion, 

i jth century b.c. 28 

j The still of Demokritos; reconstruction of the mercury still 
| of Dioskorides 3 5 

!• 4 Relief of priest of Mithras 3-7 

| J Ancient Egyptian goldsmith at crucible 46 

p 6 Workshop of a moneyer at Rome 5 5 

| 7 Smiths from the region of Laodikeia 62 

I I Lakonian relief from Chrysapha, about 5 50-30 b.c. 75 

|N 9 Travelling merchants in China: three T’ang figurines show- 

ing Semitic, Persian, and Western types 86 

10 Chinese symbol of Yang-Yin: hermaphroditic, as the cock is 
j, male, the snake female 89 

^;t! Urt-hekau, the Cobra-goddess of magical spells 101 

Cobra-goddesses of Lower and Upper Egypt 104 

Relief of Campaspe riding Aristotle; Psyche ridden by 
Aphrodite 115 

}4 Gem of Mithras slaying the Bull, with Eros and Psyche on 
1 the reverse (broken) 119 

, I) Pompeian painting of the torture of Psyche 123 

”, |6 Thoth in Ibis-form with Shu and Tefnut as lions 161 

'* *7 The weighting of the heart of Osiris Ani 164-5 

>; 18 Sekhait, Thoth, and Atum register a king’s name on the 

Heavenly Tree placing the king within it 171 

(I9 Herm in Dionysiac form with implements of worship 173 

1m Ptah—as Guardian of one of the Arits of Osiris (Pap. of 
K Ani); and as the Magician’s Lord 176 

Al Mithraic cameo 180 

’ Mummiform figure on staff with snakes; two crossed snakes 
p*' from the Book of the Underworld 188 

Combinations of signs to express modifications of gold 193 
il4 The Sungod, with ram-head, sailing on the river of the 
1 / Underworld 203 

IpJ' Bartering a necklet for perfume 216 

8|t6 Egyptian unguent-maker’s workshop 218 

“l 7 Egyptians using a torsion-press 222 

Incense-trees imported from Punt 224 








X 


ILLUSTRATIONS 


29 Heaps and cones of incense 226 

30 Cones of incense; Lady and Servant with Cones 229 

31 Relief of Roman goldworker, aurifer 230 

32 Egyptian lady using powder-puff 236 

33 Pompeian painting of loves as chemists 239 

34 The three-armed still of Maria the Jewess 244 

35 Reconstruction of the three-armed still 247 

36 Stages in the evolution of the still 250 

37 Kerotakis or Reflux Apparatus, as shown in a Greek MS 252 

3 8 Reconstruction of Kerotakis (M =Metals; P =Palette) 2 5 5 

39 Ouroboros: St Mark’s MS 299 fi88v 260 

40 Ouroboros: Paris MS 2327 fi96 263 

41 Ouroboros: St Mark’s MS 299 fi88v 266 

42 Ouroboros: Paris MS 2225 f82, stylised version 266 

43 Two figures of Aion 271 

44 The Consort of the Sky-goddess in his circular form 273 

45 Relief of Aion 276 

46 The still 280 

47 Sky-goddess with consort; Shu supporting her, aided by 

two ram-headed figures 286 

48 Sky-goddess bent over to encircle, in double form, her back- 

bending circular husband 287 

49 The Cat killing the Serpent at the Foot of the Heavenly Tree 293 

50 Serpent enfolds ithyphallic Osiris 298 

51 Osiris breaks out 3 00 

52 Chnoumis gems 3°5 

53 The Sungod of Night surrounded by the Five-headed 

Serpent of Many faces; on his head the Beetle of Khepri, the 
rising sun of the next day 308 

54 Gem with Chnoumis above an altar and inscription, on 

reverse “I ever I am the Good Spirit.” 311 

5 3 Osiris enthroned on the Mound with snakes 314 

56 Silver from Samara with encircling griffin 316 

57 Serpent-enclosed ithyphallic Osiris 321 

3 8 Serpent containing the Four Cardinal Points 3 24 

59 The cold still of Zosimos 329 

60 Cosmic serpent enclosing Hermopolis 334 

61 Cosmic Serpent, two-headed 339 

62 Ouroboros on a magical gem (with inscription 

IAO ABRASAX) 34 * 

63 Seven Forms of Osiris, serpent-enclosed 346 

64 Egyptian Barber and Customer 348 

6) Egyptian Lady using Lipstick 331 


ILLUSTRATIONS 


XI 


66 Scorpion-goddess Serquet in her serpent-boat propelled by 

a crocodile 337 

67 Later alchemic imagery: the Green Lion devouring the Sun 

(from The Rosary of Philosophers) 363 

68 The Alchemical Assumption (from The Rosary) 368 

69 The alchemical death of the Hermaphrodite (from The 

Rosary) 376 

70 The Winged Hermaphrodite symbolising the Red Stone 

(from The Rosary) 379 

71 Alchemical Resurrection (from The Rosary) 388 












Author’s Note 


This is the fourth book of a series on the life and culture of 
Roman Egypt. It is, however, complete in itself, though naturally 
the more one knows of the period the more one is aware of its 
ways of thought and action, what it comes out of and what it is 
moving towards, and the richer becomes the background against 
which one views any particular aspect. The first book dealt with 
the more ordinary matters of daly life; the second with “leisure 
and pleasure” and the Dionysiac cult in its later phases; the third 
with the life on the Nile and the role of that river in Egyptian 
religion and world-outlook. Here I deal with the theory and 
practice of alchemy in its earlier centuries, its formative period. 
Egypt is centre of the picture, but to comprehend all the ideas and 
images flowing in to that centre we need to look also to the general 
trends in Greek scientific and philosophic thinking, and to the 
potent influences generated in the Iranian world of the Mazdean 
and Magian fire-cults. 

Especially in the earlier phases the picture is involved and 
complex; but for this very reason the inquiry into what happened 
is in many ways all the more interesting. For we find an extremely 
rich and subtle merging of ideas and practices from a wide field 
to beget a new science, a new deep-going set of values and atti¬ 
tudes. With strange insight the Greeks intuited and sketched out 
systems of scientific thought which they were not able to explore 
with exact methods. Their atomist hypotheses are well-known; 
recently Sambursky has shown how the Stoics grasped the con¬ 
cept of fields of force, of continuous forces, of a cohesive and 
tensional continuum. I trust I have in turn shown how, amid 
much fantasy and confusion, the alchemists were not only the 
founders of experimental science, but also were struggling with 
ideas that belong to the future of science rather than its past. 

J. L. 


1 


Greek Scientific Thought before Alchemy 


If, as this book tries to show, the emergence of alchemy marked a 
deep crisis in ancient thought and science, a crisis which could not 
be resolved from within the given framework and its precon¬ 
ceptions, then it is clearly necessary to begin with a discussion of 
what was achieved in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and 
what were the limitations of that achievement, what were the 
boundaries that it was found so difficult to cross. But Greek 
philosophy and science of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., with 
their roots in the 6th and 7th centuries, are very rich and complex; 
ind attempts to set them out in brief succinct definitions are liable 
to end by giving a very imperfect and devitalised effect of what 
actually happened. Still, the problem cannot be evaded. We must 
try to generalise on various aspects of the development, concen¬ 
trating on the main issues that were raised and their relevance for 
the alchemic revolt. 

We begin then with the 7th century, with the growth of 
Ionian thought which sought in various ways to explain the 
universe by finding its fundamental principles and substances (or 
lubstance), and by concentrating on natural phenomena; and the 
Pythagorean school of South Italy, which had the same end in 
view, but sought the explanation of reality in Number, in an 
abstract principle. As two important expressions of these opposing 
viewpoints in the 5 th century we may take the atomic theory of 
Leukippos and Demokritos, which saw all bodies as composed of 
ultimate and indivisible elements or atoms moving in an empty 
(pace; and the hypothesis of the universe’s construction by the 
Pythagorean Philolaos, who argued for a central condensed fire 
and an outer fire surrounding the spherical universe, which itself 
was divided into three spheres, Olympos (that of the fixed stars) 
Cosmos (with the planets, sun, moon,) and Ouranos (the sublunar 
region in which is the earth and a theoretical anti-earth, Asitichtbori). 











2 


ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 3 


Philolaos also defined the elements in terms of geometrical 
figures: earth was made up by the cube, fire by the tetrahedron, 
air by the octahedron, water by the icosahedron, while a fifth 
element, which comprehended the others and was the bond of 
them all, was represented by the dodekahedron. 

The Ionian thinkers had raised the question of what the universe 
was composed of, what single underlying substance—water or air 
or fire or some indefinable primary element, the apeiron (that with¬ 
out bounds or limits) of Anaximadros. Empedokles of Akragas in 
Sicily devised a theory of the elements working in a system of 
opposites, love and strife, attraction and repulsion; earth, water, 
fire, air floated in these two enclosing media which acted as 
material forces. At first there had been an harmonious spherical 
whole enveloped in Love, with strife extending on the outside. 
Strife absorbed the four elements, drove out Love, and created 
Chaos; but Love reasserted its power with a revolving motion; 
and in the central region, little affected by the universal rotation, 
the world was rebuilt. Air escaped first, but compressed by the 
limits of the universe it was changed into a hollow crystalline 
sphere; fire accumulated in one half of the sphere, making it 
luminous, while the other half remained dark—hence our earth, 
at the centre, sees the alternation of day and night. (Argument has 
gone on as to whether Empedokles saw the present world as 
belonging to the period of disorganisation by strife or to that of 
love-integration. 1 ) Herakleitos had defined all things as moved by 
the unity and conflict of opposites; Empedokles sought to carry 
this sort of outlook into a detailed application of the struggles 
between the two conflicting forces, with Necessity as the sum of 
their activity, together with the “contract” that ties them to¬ 
gether as they build and destroy—each of them limited by the 
effects of the other. 

Thus, Love brings forth at first partial assemblages with what it finds 
available at every point, and these assemblages undergo natural 
selection by virtue of Strife, which thus cooperates from the other side 
in creation; Love shapes forms out of drives caused by Strife, but also 
reabsorbs all varieties in the end, while later Strife sharpens, increases, 
articulates the variety brought forth by Love, yet to a destructive end. 
The forces remain constant in behaviour, but the fearful intricacies of 
their interaction give the effect of chance. The pattern of this interac¬ 
tion weaves together the obvious “intentionality”, or shall we say 
functionality, seen in the order of life with the mechanical causality 


which ensures the over-all pulsation. Everywhere elements of matter 
and elements of function, of purpose and no-purpose, so to speak, are 
locked together in the universal mellay of process. (G. de Santillana) 2 

The emphasis put by Herakleitos and Empedokles on opposites or 
contraries continues in Greek thought, and is the source of both 
its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses. Aristotle, who 
makes the principle an insistent feature of his physics, declares 
l hat the theme was shared by Greek rational physics from the 
outset. 3 Indeed it could hardly have been otherwise; for in this 
matter the Greeks were carrying on the deepest and most perva¬ 
sive element in primitive tribal thinking, where the dual organi¬ 
sation of society is reflected in every aspect of the way in which 
l lie universe and natural phenomena are regarded. 4 

The main bases of Greek thinking have thus been laid: (i) the 
idea of a unitary process in nature, of some ultimate substance out 
1 >f which all things are built up, (2) the idea of a conflict of opposites 
which are held together by the overriding unity, as the force 
driving the universe onwards, (3) the idea of a definite structure in 
l lie ultimate components of matter, whether this structure is 
expressed by varying aggregates of atoms ( atomon , indivisible 
unit) or by combinations of a set of basic geometrical forms at 
1 lie atomic level. The two first positions were derived from the 
forms of thought created over very long periods by tribal 
society as it grew aware of its unity with, and its difference from, 
nature. The third idea was the product of a society in which 
individualism with all its small local conflicts, endlessly splitting 
up the general interest, had been born—above all, a society in 
which money-systems and mathematics had arrived as the expres¬ 
sion of the new divisive forces inside the overriding unity, the 
xirongly surviving tribal elements. 

The whole of classical thinking was determined by the forms 
in which the problems of man and nature were thus presented. 
Action, movement, and change could be recognised and con¬ 
sidered only under the categories devised out of general ideas of 
the unity of process and the conflict of opposites within that 
unity; but the thinkers were quite unable to arrive at concepts of 
causality in the sense of that term in the post-Galilean epoch. 
They could not fuse in any effective way the idea of the unity and 
conflict of opposites with that of the atomic substratum of reality. 
'I'Iicy saw the individual as a summation of a simple whole, as 







4 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 5 


embodying the unity of society, not that unity together with its 
inner conflicts which linked him with the other individuals in a 
complex situation of agreement and dissent, likeness and unlike¬ 
ness, union and opposition. They had carried too directly and 
uncritically a tribal concept or image into a society divided by 
all sorts of discords, conflicts, divisions of class, property, and 
power. The individual (person or object) was seen as a sort of 
largescale atom, complete in himself or itself. Men did not inquire 
how each individual acted on another and affected him, or how 
objects impacted in motion; they thus avoided all problems of 
mechanical causation and the many connected matters. Instead, 
they asked what the nature of substance or identity was, and what 
were the links between the forms taken by substance. Relations 
thus became of extreme importance—but relations regarded under 
the aspect of the powers or capacities of action residing inside the subject. 
“Relations were assumed to have the status of attributes 
securely anchored in the independently existing substance” 
(Cornford). 5 Aristotle indeed has much to say of causes , but what 
he considers under this term is form and matter —that is, the 
internal constituents into which a total thing can be analysed. 
He sees three kinds of change: locomotion, or the movement 
from one place to another; growth or diminution, a change in 
quantity; alteration, a change in quality. So all changes are 
defined and explained in terms of the likeness or unlikeness of 
the things undergoing changes. We get comparisons of this sort, 
but not any precise computation defining the mechanics or dyna¬ 
mics of one object acting on another. Demokritos evolved his 
idea of atomic aggregations on the basis of like to like : 

All animals alike herd together with their own kind: doves with doves 
and cranes with cranes. And so it is with inanimate things, as you may 
see in the case of grains shaken in a sieve or the pebbles on the shore. 
The whirling motions of the sieve arranges the grains in distinct groups, 
lentils with lentils, barley with barley, wheat with wheat; and the 
motion of the waves rolls all the longshaped pebbles into one place, all 
the round ones into another, showing that the likeness of things tends 
to draw them together. 6 

And Leukippos remarked that the atoms, circling in the cosmic 
eddy, were “separated apart, like to like”. Clearly the principle 
is drawn from some deep emotional need or predisposition, not 
from observation. If Demokritos had really watched the pebbles 
being rolled about on the beach, he would have noted the role 


of weight and size, rather than likeness in form, in determining 
I he distribution. These examples might be indefinitely added to 

10 bring out the overwhelming predisposition of the Greek mind 
to find and apply the principle of “like to like”. The Hippokratean 
1 reatise On the Constitution of Children accounts for the growth of 
various parts of the body from the seed on the principle of like 
to like: dense to dense, rare to rare, and so on. “Each thing 
moves into its proper place according to its own affinity.” 7 The 
I lermetic work Aphrodite deals with the question why children 
look like their parents. The likeness is assumed; there is no ques- 
iion of glancing at children themselves and asking if they do in 
fact resemble the parents—as often they do not. 

When nutritive blood turns into a foam [? secretion] and the genital 
organs have provided seed, there is exhaled so to speak from the 
members of the whole body a certain substance, under the action of a 
divine force, as if it were the same man being born, and the same 

1 1 keness results in the case of the woman. When the exhalation from the 
male dominates and remains intact, the babe is born resembling the 
l.idler, just as, if the conditions are reversed, it will similarly resemble 
die mother. 8 

The ancients were thus primarily interested in qualities : what 
was like or unlike in various objects. Quantities such as weight 
seemed unimportant. In cosmic terms they saw the merging or 
separation of substances or elements with qualitative aspects such 
as hotness and coldness, wetness and dryness—or, when they 
dealt with atoms, similarities or differences in shape. Therefore 
die notions of heaviness or lightness were subsidiary, invoked 
only incidentally in describing the behaviour of like attracted to 
like or unlike repelled from unlike. Plato carried on the Empedo- 
k lean principle by which the scattered oddments of each element 
were always seen as rejoining the main mass. Weighing appears 
as a sort of violence done to the nature of substances: 

When we weigh earthy substances, we forcibly lift them into an unlike 
region [air] against their natural tendency, and they cling to their own 
kind. But the lesser bulk is more easily constrained than the greater 
and moves more quickly into the unlike region. Hence we have come 
to call such a bulk light and the region to which we constrain it up, 
and to call the opposites heavy and down. ... So these determinatives 
must be variable and relative. . .. The passage of each body towards the 
kindred-aggregate gives the name heavy to the moving body and down 
to the direction of the movement. 



6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Aristotle similarly refused to allow heaviness or lightness to be 
regarded as primary properties or powers of nature; they merely 
derived, he thought, from the tendency of simple bodies to make 
for their own proper region—earth to earth, air to air, and so on. 
So he lacked the basis for even beginning to work out any laws 
of movement, let alone a theory of gravitation. Things were 
moved by the attraction of likeness, not for any reasons of weight 
or mass. A free-falling body was seen as only one more example 
of the desire or need of unformed matter (potentiality) to reach 
the actuality of its form, as in the case of a seed becoming a fruit¬ 
bearing tree. Only when a body has reached its “natural place” 
at rest has it attained the completion of its form (lightness or 
heaviness). 9 

In Greek physics weight was thus the innate force of a body 
producing its natural motion towards its natural place at the 
centre of the earth; and the weight of a body was often compared 
to the human soul. Just as a man was considered to move and act 
by virtue of his soul (i.e. his form or eidos), so a heavy body moved 
downwards by virtue of its weight, which also was nothing other 
than its eidos. 

So much for movement in space. As for changes in size, which 
are of great significance with regard to processes of nutrition 
and growth in organic bodies, Empedokles, Anaxagoras, and 
Plato all again invoked the cosmic principle of like calling to 
like. “All the tissues,” says Plato, “as they are irrigated with the 
blood, repair what they have lost by evacuation. The character 
of this depletion and restoration is the same as that of the move¬ 
ment of the universe, where all things go towards their own 
kind.” 10 Again, as for alteration in quality, Demokritos held 
that “agent and patient must be the same or alike; for if different 
things act on one another, it is only accidentally by virtue of some 
identical property.” Aristotle said only Demokritos insisted that 
like alone could act on like, but elsewhere he saw the same prin¬ 
ciple in Empedokles’ doctrine of perception; and Theophrastos 
attributed it also to Diogenes of Apollonia. 11 Here indeed most 
thinkers took the opposing view: that unlikes affected one another, 
e.g. the heat of fire warmed cold hands. But they were all agreed 
in looking for qualities which affected other qualities. 

In early theories of knowledge the like-affects-like formula was 
widely accepted. “The physical philosophers,” says Sextus, “have 
a doctrine of high antiquity that like things are capable of know- 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY J 

mg one another.” 12 Empedokles declared, “By earth we see earth, 
by water water,” and so on. When attempts were made to explain 
perception by the passage of effluvia or exhalations from an object 
to the affected sense-organs, this outlook was given a new force. 

I ike was considered to move to like. Theophrastos adds a further 
reason: “It is natural for all living creatures to recognise creatures 
oft heir own kind.” In later antiquity, partly through the influence 
of Stoicism, which we shall soon examine, the idea of magical con¬ 
cordances and harmonies of force or influence entangling the 
whole universe in one vast and infinitely complicated network 
was general. Thus the Neoplatonist Plotinos says: 

Mow are magical practices to be explained? By sympathy, by the 
existence of a concordance of like things and a contrariety of unlike 
things, and by a diversity of many operative powers in the one living 
universe. Without any external contrivance, there is much drawing and 
n pell-binding. The true magic is the Love and Strife in the universe. In 
magical practices men turn all this to their own uses. 13 

11 c uses the same terms, Pbilia and Neikos, as did Empedokles 
nearly 700 years earlier. 

I have stressed the fact that certain preoccupations born from 
1 he social situation, from the whole way of life of the Greeks, 
held them up from breaking through into new fundamental 
positions. It was not any exhaustion of mathematics itself that 
. uused the hold-up, as is often stated. With the least change in 
social pressures, there was a continual ferment of ideas and 
methods, which seem for a moment as if the leap into new posi¬ 
tions is about to take place. An inability to conceptualise (to 
grasp as a general factor free for application in new ways) the 
i.tlc-of-change of the rate-of-change is what separates Archimedes 
I rum Newton by a barrier that the former could never cross. 

Purely mathematically, there is nothing in Newton’s Principia that was 
not familiar to Archimedes, except the notion of the rate of change of a 
velocity. And even here, only the notion was alien to Archimedes, and 
not the power for formalising the notion mathematically, if by some 
reversal of history it had come within his purview. In fact, purely 
mathematically Archimedes was much better equipped for dealing 
with it formally than was Newton, seeing that Newton did not manage 
lo define really rigorously the notions of velocity and acceleration to 
(lie very end of his days. (Bochner) 14 

()ne characteristic of Greek society in almost all fields was the 
i urrying-over of tribal ideas and methods of organisation, though 


8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

the rapid development of the system kept lifting these ideas and 
methods on to new levels, with new centres and applications. 
Hence, as I have argued, the confusion induced by attributing 
to the new “atomic individual” with all his great powers of 
initiative (and also of discord and violent self-assertion) the 
simple refraction of the social whole which had been substantially 
true in far-back days of tribal brotherhood and equality. A key- 
aspect of the divisions introduced into society, denying the simple 
refraction, was the advent of the cash-nexus, of money-values 
continually disrupting old relationships and balances; another 
was the growth of slavery in all sorts of new forms outside its 
primitive aspect of chettel-slavery. The slave was the obvious 
example of a man reduced to a thing, the complete reflection of 
the cash-nexus with its “thingification” of relationships. The 
existence of large numbers of slaves, on whom was concentrated 
the burden of manual labour, meant that the slave (a thing, not 
a man) represented the mechanistic principle of his society. The 
use of a man-machine had obvious limits in comparison with the 
machine proper; but the latter, with its necessary mathematical and 
other scientific bases, could only develop in a society that felt 
the pressures urgently making for productive advances, yet could 
not put the burden simply on the man-machine. Hence the way 
in which the 17th century initiated the forms of modern science 
making possible the largescale invention and application of all 
sorts of machine-extensions of the human frame. Slavery as it 
existed in the Graeco-Roman world created a social and psycho¬ 
logical barrier to the development of mechanics and dynamics in 
the post-Galilean sense. Not that we must think of it as a sort of 
external system unfortunately imposed on its societies. In the 
last resort it proceeded, not out of any purely economic motiva¬ 
tion or need, but out of the total human situation, which in turn 
it affected and modified. The concept of the “atomic individual” 
as the free man (with all its virtues of liberating men from ancient 
constraints) had as its reverse side the concept of the man-thing 
or man-mechanism; the new sense of freedom was dogged all 
the time by an increasing sense of fate or necessity. Hence the 
dilemma of Greek thought, which on the one hand was richly 
aware of the patterns of change and on the other hand could not 
advance from dialectical generalisations to applications in 
mechanics and dynamics. 

The only quantitative formula which Aristotle attempted 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 9 

assumed a proportionality, not between force and acceleration, 
hut between force and velocity. This was equivalent to saying, 
incorrectly, that the force is equal to the product of load and 
velocity—as against Newton’s second law, in which acceleration 
l ikes the place of velocity. That is, Aristotle, like every other 
ancient thinker, was quite blank as to the existence of friction 
as an opposing force to be considered when defining relations 
between forces as causes-of-motion and the motions that in fact 
resulted. (The sole exception was Themistios in the later 4th 
century a.d., who remarked, “Generally it is easier to further 
1 lie motion of a moving body than to move a body at rest.”) 
Aristotle, considering men at work hauling a ship over land, 
saw as the only two factors the weight of the boat and the 
hauling powers of the men. These two factors were imagined 
;is existing in a sort of vacuum, with all other factors (friction) 
eliminated. The notion of the men as abstract things or machines 
inhibited the thinker from approaching the situation concretely 
.mil discovering the actual laws of mechanics. 15 

It is perhaps not going too far if we link the Greek refusal to 
. (insider the mathematical forms that would have led to mechanics 
of the Galilean type (or the phenomena that led to the mathema- 
1 it s), with the hatred of the dominant thinkers for any form of 
equality. Ploutarch in a discussion on Plato’s statement (authentic 
or apocryphal) that “God is always busy geometrising”, makes 
one of his speakers remark: 

I''or the Equality aimed at by the many [arithmetical equality] is the 
greatest of all injustices, and God has removed it out of the world as 
being unattainable. But he protects and maintains the distribution of 
things according to merit, determining it geometrically, that is, in 
accordance with proportion and law. 16 

I lence the liking for geometrical systems, such as we find in 
I’hilolaos and Plato, where one set can be considered superior to 
another. Certainly Plato and Aristotle held strong views that the 

I I i stribution of things to persons of unequal merit was unequal. The 
linking of social and intellectual positions in this relation is not so 
odd as may seem at first sight when we recollect how much the 
Pythagoreans’ concepts of “proportion and law” were deter¬ 
mined or stimulated by their political struggle as a middle force 
against both aristocrats and plebeians. Once such a bias had been 
established, a bias that was powerfully in accord with the emo- 
lional outlook of the main thinkers of the classical period, it 




IO ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

became almost too deeply rooted to be questioned. To estimate 
its strength we must again link it with the whole psychological 
and intellectual complex set up by the existence of slavery. In 
defending the rejection of juridical equality by the Roman 
system, Cicero attacked as unequal that kind of equality which 
“does not recognise grades of dignity”. 17 Such an attitude, per¬ 
vading all the spheres of thought and emotion, was a second- 
nature for the dominant class and its spokesmen, and affected the 
whole of society, limiting even the attempts at revolt. 

The Greeks developed mathematics incomparably beyond the level 
reached by the previous most talented practitioners, the Baby¬ 
lonians; but despite all the new ground they broke, the 
limitations of outlook sketched above laid down in the last 
resort the extent to which development here too was possible. 
Because of the concentration on the isolated object and its 
qualities, its form, geometry played a key part in the scientific 
approach and in defining the limits of mathematical expansion. 
In the detailed development over the centuries the results were 
highly complex; for there was every now and then a strong 
chafing against the barriers, momentary flashes of deeper insight, 
or the promise of methods that would in fact break through, 
above all by the Stoics and then by Neoplatonists of later andquity. 
But always the barriers rose up again and prevented any effective 
application of the new ideas. The sort of dilemma that kept coming 
up may be illustrated from a paradox set out by Demokritos: 

If a cone were cut by a plane parallel to the base, what must we think 
of the surface of the sections? Are they equal or unequal? For if 
unequal, they will make the cone irregular, as have many indentations, 
like steps, and unevennesses; but if they are equal, the sections will be 
equal, and the cone will appear to have the property of the cylinder and 
to be made up of equal, not unequal circles, which is quite absurd. 18 

His problem could not be met within the static concepts of atomic 
lengths, i.e. of constant magnitudes, however small those magni¬ 
tudes were conceived. The instrument for solving the query 
could only be provided by the dynamic concept of the lim i tin g 
process and the other notions of the infinitesimal calculus. The 
Stoic Chrysippos did evolve a conception of the limiting process 
that made possible a deeper grasp of the nature of infin ite 
sequences of inscribed and circumscribed figures, which Greek 
mathematicians cautiously evaded when using methods of exhaus- 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY II 

lion. But the sort of breakthrough that came with Galileo and 
Newton did not happen, and could not happen, in a world where 
i here were so many assumptions and methods based in the older 
(lassical positions. 

Astronomy was the field where the method was fully mathemati¬ 
cal. Other branches of research acquired varying degrees of 
mathematical expression. Aristotle knew already a science of 
()ptics subordinate to geometry and Harmonics subordinate to 
arithmetic, not to mention a Mechanics subordinate to three- 
dimensional geometry; and remarks of his show that the Pythago¬ 
reans visualised some sort of mathematising of physics. 19 But 
litis was never brought about. Archimedes’ laws on the balancing 
of the lever and on floating bodies pertain to mathematical 
physics and were the first of their kind, but they did not bring 
about any further movement in the same direction. 20 He and his 
followers arrived in some covert and unexplained way at the con¬ 
cept of the statical moment, but they left the concept untouched 
and unquestioned in their formulations. It was not conceptualised 

that is, conciously grasped in its implications—till the 17th 
century. In the same way the Greek could not form a notion of the 
relation of relation, the property of properties, the aggregate of 
aggregates. Aristotle even polemised sharply against the possibility 
(>f a motion of motion. 21 Archimedes lacked coordinate systems 
or mathematical functions; still in On Spirals he came close in his 
own way to forming the derivative of a function: 

jy_ = # (!) ; 

dx dx 

which is the mathematical prerequirement for the “abstract” concep- 
lualisation of the notion of velocity. However, in order to advance to 
l he concept of acceleration, one has to be able to form a second 
derivative. This requires that one form the derivative (1) at each and 
every point x, then view the resulting mathematical object as a new 
function in x, and then apply the “abstract” process of differentiation 
lo this new function again. It is this kind of interation of logico-ontolo- 
gical abstractions to which Greek thinking was never able to penetrate 
lo any noticeable extent (Bochner). 22 

But we do not want to go into detailed mathematics here. We are 
concerned with the general points; and what has been said above 
will suffice to bring out on the one hand the limitations imposed 
on Greek scientific thinking by certain deep preconceptions. 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY IJ 


12 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

ultimately social in origin, and on the other hand the way in 
which they chafed against the limitations at various times but 
could not break through and establish new basic positions from 
which to advance in new directions. 

How far late antiquity was able to devise a programme of 
theoretical physics without being able to put it into action can 
be gauged from a passage in Iamblichos (who died about a.d. 
330): 

Sometimes it is also the practise of mathematical science to attack 
perceptible things with mathematical methods, such as the problem 
of the four elements, with geometry or arithmetic or with the methods 
of harmony, and similarly other problems. And as mathematics is prior 
to nature, it constricts its laws as derived from prior causes. 

This it does in several ways: either by abstraction, which means 
stripping the form involved in matter from the consideration of matter; 
or by unification, which means by introducing mathematical concepts 
into the physical objects and joining them together; or by completion, 
which means by adding the missing part to the corporeal forms which 
are not complete and thus making them complete; or by representation, 
which means looking at the equal and symmetrical things among the 
changing objects from the viewpoint whence they can be best compared 
with mathematical forms; or by participation, which means considering 
how concepts in other things participate in a certain way in the pure 
concepts; or by giving significance, which means by becoming aware of a 
faint trace of a mathematical form taking shape in the realm of percept¬ 
ible objects; or by division, which means considering the one and 
indivisible mathematical form as divided and plurified among individual 
things; or by comparison, which means looking at the pure forms of 
mathematics and those of perceptible objects and comparing them; 
or by causal approach from prior things, which means positing mathema¬ 
tical things as causes and examining together how the objects of the 
perceptible world arose from them. 

In this manner, I believe, we can mathematically attack everything in 
nature and in the world of change. 23 

For our purpose the most important work by Plato was the 
Timaios in which he set out his cosmogony, his scheme of physics. 
He draws a bold and complex picture of the creation of the 
universe by the demiurge (a word he took from Philolaos). He 
makes no reference to Demokritos, probably through contempt 
for mechanistic systems; yet he draws from him the assumption 
that the phenomena known to our senses are rooted in discrete 
invisible elements, whose aggregates and interactions cause or 


underlie all physical occurrence. However grudgingly, his theory 
in an atomic one. From the Pythagoreans however he takes the 
a'(sumption that Number forms the basis of all physical events. 

I Ic holds that there are certain symmetries in the structure of 
lu.itier, so that the correct approach is one of three-dimensional 
gr( imetry. Not that he sees simple systems of order. In his universe 
there is a deep and ceaseles struggle of the uniform and the non- 
uniform, the ordered and the disordered, which we can best 
describe as a stuggle of the symmetrical and asymmetrical 
aspects of structure. He himself uses these terms: 

All that is good is beautiful, and the beautiful is not without measure. 

. . . Of symmetries we distinguish and reason about those that are 
•.mall, but of the most important and the greatest we have no rational 
comprehension. With respect to health and disease, virtue and vice 
there is no symmetry or lack of symmetry greater than that which 
exists between the soul itself and the body itself. 24 

Asymmetry or non-uniform combinations and structure bring 
about instability and change. Speaking of Fire he writes: 

Now the liquid kind, in so far as it partakes of those small water- 
particles which are unequal, is mobile both in itself and by external 
lorcc resulting from its non-uniformity and the shape of its figuration 

I I lie idea of its schema ]. But the other kind, composed of large uniform 
particles, is more stable than the first, and is heavy, being solidified by 
its uniformity; but when fire enters and dissolves it, this causes it to 
abandon its uniformity; and when this is lost, it partakes more largely 
1 >1 motion. And when it has become mobile, it is pushed by the adjacent 
air and extended upon the earth. For each modification [pathos] it has 
received a descriptive term: Melting and Fluidity for its extension over 
1 lie earth. 25 

I ''or the four elements he followed Philolaos in taking four perfect 
bodies, omitting the fifth one for which he had no use. He made 
1 lie same correlations as Philolaos. Wanting to explain transitions 
from liquid to gaseous states and back again, he needed common 
Icatures in all or some of the four elements in order to show how 
one could change into another. The first three figures were all 
bounded by equilateral triangles, which permitted the establish¬ 
ment of relations between them; the cube was however bounded 
I iy squares so that it could not be resolved into such triangles by 
further division. So there was no transition from earth to fire, air, 
or water. Still, Plato did not take the equilateral triangle or 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 15 


14 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

square as his basic structural unit; instead he divided all his 
elements into rectangular triangles. The advantage of the break¬ 
down into small structural units was that sets of equilateral 
triangles or squares of varying and increasing sizes could be 
constructed, to represent the series of elementary bodies of 
different sizes. Plato was also thus able to differentiate between 
various kinds of fire (including light) and so on. But within each 
series the tetrahedron was the smallest body, being made up of 
the least number of triangles; it thus provided two of fire’s 
characteristics: mobility (smallness) and penetrability (sharpness 
of the solid angle). Demokritos had had to suppose that two 
separate properties were owned by fire: smallness and sphericity; 
Plato reduced them to a single basis. 

We are not sure how much detail he borrowed from Philolaos; 
but in general we may say that he first worked out a scheme of 
interlocked structures in matter which permitted the change of one 
element into another. He may then be claimed as the founder of 
alchemy as a science, even if it was to take some time before the 
implications were worked out. He saw metals as the product of 
fusible water (not to be identified with ordinary water). 

Of all the kinds of water we have termed fusible, the densest is produced 
from the finest and most uniform particles: this is a kind of unique 
form, tinged with a glittering yellow hue, even that most precious of 
possessions, Gold , which has been strained through stones and solidified. 
And the offshoot of Gold, very hard because of its density and black 
in colour, is called adamas [perhaps haematite or platinum]. 

And the kind that closely resembles gold in its particles but has more 
forms than one, and in density is more dense than gold, and partakes 
of small and fine portions of earth (so that it hardens), while it is also 
lighter because of the large interstices within it, this particular kind 
of solid waters, being thus compounded, is termed Bronze. And the 
portion of earth that it is mixed with becomes distinct by itself, when 
both grow old and separate again from each other; and then it is 
named Rust [ios ]. 26 

There is a strong suggestion of the possibility of the transmuta¬ 
tion of metals with special reference to gold. “Now imagine a man 
modelling all possible figures out of gold and then proceeding 
without stop to remodel each of these into every other, if some¬ 
one were to point to one of the figures and ask what it is, by far 
the safest answer in point of truth would be that it is gold.” Only 
“the substratum which receives all bodies” is stable and constant. 27 


Wc may note too the important role of fire, which suggests 
metallurgical process as does the very term “fusible water”. 

As the fire, on issuing from the water, does not pass into a void but 
presses on the adjacent air, this in turn compresses the liquid mass which 
1*1 Mill mobile into the abodes of fire and combines it with itself; and the 
mass, thus compressed and again regaining its uniformity, through 
1 lie departure of the fire, the author of its non-uniformity, returns to 

I lie state of self-identity [symmetry]. And this cessation of fire is termed 
< 'onling, and the combination that follows on its departure Solidification . 2S 

II is important to note that the essential ideas of cosmic creation or 
natural process are all drawn from human crafts and industries. 

I'he term for the creator (or fundamental creative activity) is 

dcmiourgos, craftsman. Like all ancient thinkers (and many others 
besides), Plato assumes that any form of purposive movement or 
significant development implies a prior act of decision carried out 
1 iy a person; he cannot rise to the concept of purpose as born out of 

I lie totality of a situation with its inner formative process, even 

II lough he himself has shown how development could occur 
ill rough the symmetry-asymmetry principle. His demiurge works 
by a paradeigma or pattern, a term used by Herodotos for an 
nrchitect’s model or plan of a building, or for samples, e.g. of 
mummies made of wood. The term is also used for a sculptor’s or 
painter’s model. Plato himself uses the metaphor of modelling, as 

III the passage cited about gold and elsewhere: “When the 
generating Father perceived it [the cosmos] in motion and alive, 
in agalma [honour, statue in honour of the gods], he too rejoiced, 
and, well pleased, designed to make it resemble its paradeigma yet 
more closely.” 29 He also draws on the techniques of perfume¬ 
making. Substance is voided of all forms “just as with all fragrant 
ointment men bring about the condition by craft, techne, to make 
the odours as odourless as possible; and all who set out to mould 
figures in any soft materials wholly refuse to allow any previous 
figure to remain visible in it, and begin by making it as smooth as 
possible before they carry out their work.” 30 He also uses the 
analogy of winnowing with a sieve to explain how the particles 
separate and fly about, the dissimilar driven apart, the similar 
drawing together. 31 In a play on words he brings out how the 
lerm apeiros suggests the unskilled as well as the unlimited or 
chaotic: that is, it represents the world before craft-skill (forma¬ 
tive process) gets to work on it. 32 

Besides the principle of symmetry-asymmetry as the source of 




l6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

movement and development. Plato also uses his triadic formula. 

It is not possible for two things to be joined together without a 
third.” On the principle of like-to-like he states that the triadic 
nature of the soul (its fusion of Identity, Otherness, and Essence) 
is reflected in the structure of the universe. He puts the point in an 
idealist way, turning the abstractions into substances and giving 
them as plastic material to the demiurge to make souls out of; but 
the notion of a triadic movement both in the soul and in nature, 
making a dialectical unity of all process, is nonetheless present. 33 

We now come to two aspects of Aristotle’s thought that concern 
us: the way in which he developed the scheme of elements able to 
move round or be combined in various ways, and his definition of 
metals and stones. He supposed the ultimate basis to be a primitive 
matter or prima materia, which had only potential existence till 
impressed by form. Form was not only the geometrical structure 
but also the total inner organisation of a thing; it was the sum of 
its qualities and properties, and gave it its identity. In its simplest 
manifestation it turned the primal matter into the four elements, 
fire, air, water, earth, through a variation of qualities arising from 
heat and cold, fluidity and dryness. Each element had two of 
these qualities and no more. But the opposites, heat and cold, 
dryness and fluidity, could not be mated. So the four possible sets 
of combinations were: hot and dry (fire), hot and fluid (air), cold 
and fluid (water), cold and dry (earth). In every element one quality 
dominated: dryness in earth, coldness in water, fluidity in air, 
heat in fire. Through the medium of shared qualities one element 
could pass into another, e.g. fire into air through the heat they 
shared, and so on. Two elements could pass together into a third, 
through each discarding one quality, as long as the effect was not 
to leave two identical or two contrary qualities. Thus, air and 
earth, by dropping fluidity and cold, could produce fire (heat and 
dryness). Aristotle taught that what was changed was only the 
form; the underlying matter was always the same. 34 

Plato definitely bases his system of changes in matter on varia¬ 
tions and combinations of geometrical structures, which are 
capable of mathematical definition. Aristotle appears to assume 
varying arithmetical combinations of the different elements, plus 
similar sorts of variation inside an element; but he gives no clue, 
for example, as to how an element discards one of its qualities, 
e.g. how air drops its fluidity and earth its coldness so that the two 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 17 

of them may produce fire. Neither are we given any idea how the 
proportions work out in any precise way in substances: 

11 icy contain earth because every simple body is specially and most 
abundantly in its own place. And they all contain water because the 
11 impound must possess a definite outline and water alone of the simple 
I ii itlies is readily adaptable in shape. Moreover earth has no power of 
n ihcsion without the moist. On the contrary the moist is what holds it 
together. It would fall to pieces if the moist were completely eliminated 

I torn it. 

They contain earth and water then for the reasons given; and they 

II intain air and fire because these are contrary to earth and water— 
earth being contrary to air and water to fire, in so far as one substance 
< an be contrary to another. Now all compounds presuppose in their 
omiing-to-be constituents which are contrary to one another; and in all 
compounds there is contained one set of the contrasted extremes, i.e. 
cold-dry [earth] and cold-fluid [water]. Hence the other set [hot-fluid, 
air, and hot-dry, fire] must be contained in them also, so that every 
compound will include all the simple bodies. 35 

S< i deep-rooted is the concept of any body as involving a union of 
opposites that Aristotle assumes it in his exposition. He imagines 

I he cosmos as made up of 59 concentric spheres, with the earth at 

II ic centre, water making up the next sphere, then air, then fire— 

1 1 lough with no hard boundary-lines. Each element has a natural 
tendency to move to its own place. The union of contraries 
prevents what he has called “excesses”. If earth gathers in excess, 
it will destroy the intermovements among the elements which 
create reality and its diversity of objects; and so on with each 
clement. In fact then we find an enormous number of distinct 
compounds, though any one of them will be changed into any 
other if we alter the relative proportions of the composing 
elements in the required direction. 

As for metals they are born of exhalations. Vaporous exhala¬ 
tion is moist and cold, produced when the sun’s rays fall on water; 
the smoky is hot and dry, produced by the rays falling on dry 
land. In actuality the two vapours mix in varying degrees. The 
heat of the dry one causes minerals, stones that cannot be melted 
such as realgar (arsenious sulphide), ochre and ruddle (clayey iron 
oxides), and sulphur. The heat of the moist one causes metals, 
which are fusible or malleable, such as iron, copper, gold. Though 
metals and minerals like all things contain something of all four 
elements, water and air (chiefly water) predominate in metals, and 




l8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

earth and fire (chiefly earth) in minerals. 36 (The alchemists identi¬ 
fied the dry vapour with sulphur, the moist with mercury, and 
developed the theory that all metals were made up of mercury and 
sulphur.) Aristotle distinguished chemical combination, mixis, and 
mechanical mixture, synthesis', the mixis of liquids had its own term, 
krasis. However his notion of chemical combination (as in drugs) 
was unclear. He thought it a kind of mutual assimilation if the 
components managed to form a homogeneous whole, and so was 
led to insist that a weak component was merely absorbed by a 
stronger one without working out any ratios for such a situation 
to develop. 37 

Exhalation is compressed (i.e. condensed) by the dryness of the 
rocks, and congealed or solidified, apparently by cold. The admix¬ 
ture of dry exhalation however prevents the metal from reverting 
to water. All metals are thus affected by fire and contain earth, 
since they all contain the dry exhalation. Only gold is unaffected 
by fire. The exposure to fire makes metal produce dross and 
change colour; Olympiodoros adds that for the same reason they 
rust. The presence of earthy matter thus explains the difference 
between the baser and more precious metals. Gold, with the least 
amount of dry exhalation, is at one end of the scale, and iron, with 
the largest amount, at the other. Aristotle did not make this point, 
but it was duly noted by the alchemists. 38 

Theophrastos in On Stones worked these positions out further. 
Stones and (mined) earths are made of earth as metals of water. 
The earth becomes a pure and uniform matter as the result of a 
conflux, when it is a lump, or of filtering, when it is in veins, or of 
some other process of separation. This uniform matter, subjected 
to heat or cold, undergoes solidification and forms the stones or 
mined earths. At what stage is colour thought to be brought in? 
At the stage of making matter uniform or that of solidification? 
Presumably at either or both. But there seems an idea that only 
solidificadon by heat will beget a change in colour at the final 
stage of formation; for the change of yellow ochre into red gets 
the comment, “Fire would appear to be the agent responsible 
for all these transformations.” In the Timaios Plato had taken 
colour to be a fire itself, which owns particles “so proportioned 
to the visual stream as to produce sensation”. Colour effects are 
brought about by the differing sizes of the particles, which dilate 
or contract the visual stream. 39 There was a strong fire-element 
also in Aristotle’s smoky exhalation, “the most inflammable of 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 19 

substances”, and “potentially like fire”. He admits that it was 
ni iinething hard for us to envisage, but in some of its states it was 
liny and in others not unlike a gas. Hence, once thinkers took an 
in 1 ivc relation to natural processes and wanted to repeat them in a 
l.iboratory, it was natural they should turn to fire, to fusion and 
ilislillation, in the attempt to change one metal into another. 40 

There was already indeed a clear idea that art ( techie , which 
embraced any sort of craft-activity, including scientific expriment) 
was a way of learning to understand and control process by 
reproducing it under man-made conditions. Thus Theophrastos 

I emarks, in connection with one of the colour-discoveries which 
jduyed an important part in developing the alchemic idea: 

II ere [a spot above Ephesos where alone cinnabar was manufactured] a 
Hand which glows like the scarlet kermes-berries is collected and 
thoroughly pounded to a very fine powder in stone vessels. It is then 
washed in copper vessels and the sediment is taken, pounded and 
washed again. There is a knack in doing this, for from an equal amount 
of material some workers secure a great amount of cinnabar, and 
others little or none. However, use is made of the washings that float 
above, especially as a wallpaint. The sediment which forms below 
t urns out to be cinnabar, while all that is above, which is the great part, 
is merely washings. 

The process is said to have been invented and studied by Kallias an 
Athenian from the silvermines, who collected and studied the sand, 
thinking it contained gold owing to its glowing appearance. But when 
he found it contained no gold, he still admired its fine colour and so 
came to discover the process, which is by no means an old one, but 
dates back some 50 years before the Archonship of Praxiboulos at 
Athens. 

From these examples it is clear that techne imitates nature, physis, and 
yet produces its own peculiar substances, some for utility, some 
merely for their appearance like wallpaint, and some for both purposes, 
like quicksilver—for even this has its uses. It is made by pounding 
cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle. And 
perhaps one might find several things of this kind. 41 

We see then that both Plato and Aristotle played a leading part in 
popularising the idea that matter was composed of elements which 
could be changed into one another. The Aristotelean formulation 
in particular became very widely known and accepted. Plato s 
Timaios however received a new and deepened attention with the 
rise of Alchemy, Gnosticism and Neoplatonic philosophy in 
general. 


20 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 21 


There is one more important line of thought which we must 
glance at before we turn to alchemy itself: that of the Stoics. 
Stoic philosophy was the great creation which came up to sustain 
men’s minds after the breakdown of the city-state and of the 
philosophic forms derived from the way of life there. The free 
expansion of thought and art which had occurred in archaic and 
classical Greek cannot be separated from the successful building- 
up of the city-states, their elimination of the kingship and 
the heavy hieratic culture which had everywhere accompanied the 
growth of kingly state-forms. But now, after Alexander the 
Great, the kingship had been imposed after all. The imposition 
occurred, however, on a culture which had been developed in the 
city-state’s days; and the result was therefore complex. The 
Stoics on the whole expressed the positive side of the new 
situation, doing their best to get rid of what I have called the 
atomic individual or object. However, under ancient conditions, 
the isolation of the individual in his specific form, his qualities and 
attributes considered as a sort of self-generated entity, could not be 
overcome. The Stoic in one sense was more than ever driven back 
into himself, needing to work out an ethic of self-sufficiency, 
endurance, and apatheicr, but in his struggle against isolation he 
produced a new conception of the unity of process and of the 
interrelation of objects or beings inside it. 

The key-concept was enclosed in the term pneuma (breath, often 
a synonym for air), defining the pervasive substratum in a 
cohesive universe, which, unlike Aristotle’s, was surrounded by a 
void. For Aristotle, coherence, sjntecheia, involved the notion of 
continuity in a geometrical or contiguous sense; the Stoics now 
gave the term a sense of dynamic cohesion in the physical world. 
The concept of pneuma had had a long history. Anaximenes, with 
his notion of the universe evolved out of air by condensation and 
rarefaction, declared, “As our soul, being air, holds us together, 
so do breath and air surround the whole universe.” There was 
also in pneuma an association of in-and-out movement, of breath¬ 
ing, a rhythmic participation in the life-process. For the Stoic? 
pneuma was air and fire, active elements or forces of cold and heat; 
they added the qualities of dry and moist in order to distinguish 
between the pneuma of the soul and that of plants, physis. The 
former pneuma was dry and warm; the latter moist and cold. 42 

The familiar Stoic aphorism, “Nature is a technikon fire, going 
on its way to creation,” stated emphatically the unity of craft- 


method and natural process. Technikon means “working like art, 
like craft”. Hippokrates had spoken of “innate heat”, and Galen 
look this to be the cause of metabolism. The Stoic Kleanthes 
declared, “This element of heat possesses in itself a vital force that 
pervades the whole universe.” 43 Matter was seen as of two kinds, 
hyle- like or passive, and pneuma -like or actively cohesive. Coher¬ 
ence was a positive force, sjnetike dynamic \ and pneuma-Xd&s. matter 
was characterised by tension, tonos, an inner heat of fire. As 
pneuma entered into organic and inorganic matter alike with its 
admixture of air and fire, it pervaded the whole universe and made 
11 a single inter-related unit drawn together by an endless series of 
tensions. In the consistent linking of pneuma with tonos the Stoics 
made their greatest and most characteristic contribution to 
scientific thought. 44 

Pneuma , as an active force, generated all the physical qualities of 
matter. Thus 

I lie Stoics generalised their continuum theory into a field theory; the 
pneuma is the physical field which is the carrier of all specific properties 
of material bodies, and cohesion as such thus gets a more specific 
meaning by becoming hexis, the physical state of the body. The follow¬ 
ing quotation from Chrysippos’ On Physical States is very instructive: 

“The physical states are nothing else but spirits, because the bodies 
arc made cohesive by them. And the binding air is the cause for those 
bound into such a state being imbued with a certain property which is 
called hardness in iron, solidity in stone, brightness in silver.” 

And a little later he continues, “Matter, being inert, by itself and 
sluggish, is the substratum of the properties, which are pneumata and 
air-like tensions giving definite form to those parts of matter in which 
they reside.” 

This gives some idea of the central position in the Stoic theory of 
matter of hexis, which denotes the structure of inorganic matter in a 
similar way to which physis expresses organic structure, and psyche the 
structure of the living being. (Sambursky). 45 

Inorganic entities were classified as discrete, contiguous and 
unified. Discrete entities might be in disorder or in a certain kind 
of order (like soldiers on parade); contiguous were conjoined, 
like chain-links or stones in a wall; unified, like a stone or a metal 
“ruled by a single state”. The co-existence of the elements in the 
highest structure was sympatheia. A living body was a form of 
unified structure: Galen describes the faculties of the human body 
as structural elements of its physiology, extending throughout its 
totality. 46 




22 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

There are many more important aspects of Stoic physical 
theory; but here we may add three more points. First, each soul 
had an hegemonikon, a dominant part (generally considered the 
heart). The hegemonikon centralised and coordinated impressions, 
lifted them into consciousness, and set off the reacting impulses and 
actions. Secondly, that there were four successive stages thought 
to take place of increasing specification of an object, each stage 
including those that had happened before it. These were substratum 
(shapeless passive matter); quality (which the pervasive pneuma 
imbued); state (the sum total of components, air and fire, in their 
varying proportions); and relative (determining the relation 
between the physical states of different bodies). It has been 
pointed out how well these categories correspond to the methodo¬ 
logical scheme of Newtonian dynamics. Simplikios divided the 
fourth stage into two kinds of relations: relative state (defined by 
that of another thing outside the object) and relative , which referred 
to things capable of change (e.g. bitter and sweet). Hexis was an 
example of the relative , expressing the physical continuum that 
covered an infinity of differing states, each of which could evolve 
from the other by a continuous transition brought about through 
“the change of the former quality”. Such a development involved 
a series of changes in the pneumatic tensions permeating the body 
in question. Thirdly, as we would expect from the notions of 
pneuma, hexis, and tonos, the Stoics deepened the whole concept of 
mixture. Fusion, as distinct from Aristotelean composition, they 
saw as a total mixture, “Whereby,” as Plotinos, dissenting, said, 
“there is no part of the mixed substance which does not participate 
in the mixture as a whole.” In order to show their opposition to 
Aristotle, Chrysippos stated, “There is nothing to prevent one drop 
of wine from mixing with the whole sea,” and the Stoics were much 
interested in cases of extreme dilution: gold finely suspended in cer¬ 
tain drugs or burnt frankincense rarefied in a vast volume of air. 47 

The Platonic, Aristotelean, and Stoic ideas that we have here 
outlined all played an important part in the development of 
alchemic theory and practice as we shall see with the unfolding 
story. The great period of Stoic physics was the 4th and 3rd 
centuries b.c., when alchemy was gradually coming to a head, if 
we are right in dating its founder, Bolos, around 200 b.c.; and 
Stoic ideas certainly did a great deal in making the work of Bolos 
possible. The next five hundredyears saw the maturing of alchemy; 
they also saw the development of Neoplatonism as the dominant 


GREEK SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT BEFORE ALCHEMY 23 

philosophy of late antiquity. Alchemy and Neoplatonism shared 
many characteristics. What Neoplatonism stood for will emerge 
.r. our story goes on. Here it will suffice to say that in certain 
essential respects it represented an attempt to reassert the Platonic 
idea of hierarchical levels of being inside the organic pantheist 
Sioic universe. The Platonic system, partly modified and changed 
I >y l he transposition, took on new complexities and richnesses as a 
result. But in seeking thus to define the existence of qualitative 
levels inside the unitary cosmos, the Neoplatonists were driven 
back to transcendental notions of deity, denying the pantheist 
materialism of the early Stoics. The ancient world always saw 
hierarchy or development as coming down by stages from above, 
not as a movement from below upwards. At most the upward- 
movement was conceivable as a return along the tracks laid down 
by descending spirit or deity. Thus Neoplatonism was agitated 
I >y an inner tension between the notions of unity and of hierarchy, 
of organic and continuous forces or processes and of a pattern 
imposed from above by a Monad outside the universe. 

(inosticism and the Hermetic creeds shared with it a belief in 
I lie descent of life or spirit through different levels or stages down 

10 the earthly level. They sought to find the way aloft again, not 
merely by philosophical reasoning, but by a gnosis, a knowledge 
that was the gift of revelation. As part of the Stoic heritage, 
together with the vast amount of folklore and magical recipes 
\v I tich were given a fresh force in the light of Stoic concepts, these 
1 reeds, like Neoplatonism itself, had a profound sense of the 

11 implex interrelationships and correspondences inside the organic 
or vital (pneumatic) whole—while at the same time they suffered 
I mm an intense sense of loss, of an agonising division that cut 
ncross the face of life. It was precisely, indeed, the dialectic of 
these two opposed positions which gave such strength and 
hiscination to the period’s dreams, fantasies, deep insights, 

< 1 imprehensions. Alchemy was richly a part of this world, torn 
by many of the same contradictions, but with a secure difference. 
Alone it clung, despite confusions and ambiguities, both to the 
belief in varying levels and structures, and to the Stoic position 
1 bat the psyche was material, that there was a mutual penetration 

< if soul and body, of physis and the world of plants, of hexis and 
1 be world of inorganic matter. It consistently saw all the more 
solid or specific elements as permeated and held together in the 
infinite network of pneumatic tensions. 48 








HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


25 


2 

Historical References 


One way of getting at the difficult and elusive problem of the 
origin of alchemy is to search for certain or probable references to 
alchemic ideas and practices in the centuries before the art comes 
out into the open. We need not expect direct references to be 
frequent, as the alchemists lived an underground kind of existence. 
Still, with the extreme difficulty of dating their first definite 
activities and the lack of any clear manuscript tradition, the quest 
for signs of those activities in the broader fields of culture is the 
only sure way of anchoring them in history. What then are we to 
seek for? First, any suggestion of the transmutation of metals. 
But, beyond that, any unmistakable signs of a chemical outlook 
emerging, of a view of reality which looks to chemical processes 
rather than to geometrical structures or arithmetical combina¬ 
tions and proportions for the understanding of matter and cosmic 
systems. This line of approach also has the value that it brings us 
concretely into the cultural situation out of which alchemy was 
born and which it played an important part in gradually changing. 

First, there is a suggestive turn of phrase in a fragment from the 
poet Kratinos, who belongs to Attic Old Comedy: “What [in the 
town] seems golden becomes lead again in the country.” 1 This 
passage does not prove the existence of alchemical ideas, but it 
implies some sort of belief in a possible transformation of lead into 
gold and gold into lead—in a hierarchical system of metals with 
gold at the top and lead at the bottom. The notion that gold had 
some special life-giving power was of course very ancient and 
extremely widespread; and the gleam of gold early suggested 
sunlight. Pindar links gold coins with the sun. Especially in 
Egypt the concept of divinisation involved a transformation of 
the body into precious stones or metals. In the tale of King 
Kheops and the Magicians, the pious kings of the 5 th Dynasty are 
born with gold stamps that reveal and express their power: 


The child slipped forth on to her hands, a child of one cubit with 
strong bones; the royal titulary on his limbs was of gold and his head- 
rloth of true lapis lazuli. They washed him, cut his navelstring, and laid 
him on a sheet on a brick. And Mesekhent [birthgoddess] drew near to 
him and said: “A king that will exercise the kingship in the entire land.” 
And Khnum gave health to his body. 2 

The royal children are imagined as inlaid bronze figures. From 
Mesopotamia we have a bronze figurine of a kneeling worshipper 
who makes an offering for Hammurabi; the hands, face, and beard, 
though not the hair, are plated with gold, while the left wrist 
bears a golden bracelet, the right one a bracelet of bronze. It 
seems that the man is supposed to have washed his face in water 
I mm the lustral stoup projecting from the base; and the purified 
parts of his body are shown as gold—in some sense they have 
I >ccn transformed, approximated to the divine. 3 

That the Greeks held the same sort of ideas in this respect as 
1 lie Egyptians and Mesopotamians is shown by a passage in the 
< hlyssej: 

Then Athene, Zeus’ Daughter, made him taller to see and stronger, 
and down from his head she make the locks flow in curls like the curls 
of the hyacinth-flower. And as when a man overlays silver with gold, a 
craftsmen, wellskilled, whom Hephaistos and Pallas Athene have 
l aught all manner of craft, and whose work, as he turns it out, is full of 
.1 grace, so the goddess shed grace on his head and his shoulders . . . 

The charts shed by the goddess on Odysseus is a divinising 
power, and is seen as a gold-and-silver transformation. Alkman, 
describing a Spartan blonde, says there is a bloom as of gold on 
her hair, then goes on to tell of her silver face. Flere there is a hint 
of divinisation, deliberately muted. The idea of the gods as gold¬ 
bodied is shown by the story of Pythagoras exhibiting his golden 
l high in a theatre, and the way in which Alexandros of Abono- 
leichos, anxious to show himself as of the same lineage, equipped 
himself with a similar limb. When the gods supplied Pelops with 
a new shoulder, the spare part was of ivory; they could lend him 
only their own substances. 4 

The long-held idea of gold as a divinising, and to some extent 
transforming, substance does not in any way prove the existence 
of alchemy, but is certainly a necessary precondition. We come 
( loser however when we meet schemes of history-periods linked 
with metals in a graded series; for here the grading assumes some 



2 7 


zG ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

sort of hierarchy. Hesiod saw history as divided into the ages of 
gold, silver, bronze, heroes, and iron (the present dispensation). 
We may compare the Vision in Daniel-. 

You, O king, saw, and behold a great image. This great image, whose 
brightness was excellent, stood before you; and the form of it was 
terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of 
silver, his belly and his thighs of brass. His legs of iron, his feet part of 
iron and part of clay. 

You saw till that a stone was cut without hands, which smote the 
image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake these to pieces. 
Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to 
pieces together, and became like chaff of the summer threshing-floors; 
and the wind carried them away, so that no place was found for them; 
and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain and filled 
the whole earth. 6 



Here the four metals represent the four ages that are to be brought 
to an end by the advent of the Kingdom of God, the rule of the 
righteous. There is clearly a stong Iranian influence. At the start of 
the Rahman-Yasht Zoroaster in a dream (or in two dreams) sees a 
tree whose metallic branches are explained by Ahura Mazda as 
representing the successive reigns of Persian kings. 6 The 
Magousaioi of Asia Minor, who combined Mazdean doctrines 
with Chaldean astrology, taught that the life of the world was 
divided into seven millennia, each under a planet and bearing the 
name of an associated metal. For six millenia the God of Good and 
the Spirit of Evil fought over the earth, till the Spirit established 
his domination and spread calamities all round. Zeus (Ahura- 
Mazda) decided to send Apollo (Mithras), a solar god, who would 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

kill off the wicked with a torrent of fire, resurrect the dead, and 
establish a reign of justice and felicity. The Seventh Millennium, 
i hat of the Sun, would assure a happy Age of Gold. At its end the 
Sun-power too was ended, and all the domination of the planets; 
l lie Eighth Millennium brought about a general conflagration in 
which Fire took in and resolved the other Three Elements. Earth 
was renovated, all corruptibility gone. 7 

The link of ages and metals had penetrated also into Egypt. In a 
manuscript dated 2nd century b.c. we find the tale of a son of the 
king, Neneferkaptah, who persists in seeking the writings hidden 
i n a nekropolis of Memphis as well as the stelai (stone-slabs) of the 
I louse of Life. One day, as he takes part in a procession in honour 
of Ptah, he meets an old priest who reveals the place where 
I both has secreted a book written in his own hand, which can tell 
I iow to master Fleaven, Earth, Underworld, Mountains and Sea. 
The prince makes the journey needed for exhuming the book 
buried in seven coffers closed one inside the other—boxes made of 
gold, silver, ebony, ivory, another wood, bronze, and finally iron, 
l ie then has to fight a fantastic dragon. In this myth of initiation 
we meet the four metals of the Hesiodic ages combined with ivory, 
ebony, and another wood, to make up the planetary seven. 8 

The aphorism by Kratinos, with which we began, has a pro¬ 
verbial ring about it and so would seem earlier than the poet 
himself. In its light we may consider another proverbial turn of 
phrase, this time in Plato’s Republic. A speaker asks impatiently, 
“Do you suppose we’ve come here to smelt gold and not expressly 
10 hear discussion [logoi] ?” That Plato did not invent the phrase, 
but was using a common idiom, is proved by its reappearance in 
1 he mouth of the orator Deinarchos, who declares in depreciation 
of someone, “He learned under the instruction of Aischines to 
smelt gold, not to do or suffer what was set before him.” The idea 
of gold-smelting as something chimerical and fruitless is odd. 
Chrysocheein cannot mean “go prospecting for gold”; it means 
“carry on the craft of goldsmith”, and chrjsochoeion is a goldsmith’s 
workshop, not a mine in any sense. The idea of goldsmelting as a 
fantastic occupation may have arisen from the smith sometimes 
taking for gold a substance that proved to be of base metal; but 
that it should have begotten a proverb suggests wider implica- 
I ions. The story told in the Souida to explain the saying is clearly a 
later rationalisation. The Athenian populace were said to have 
deserted all their usual work and rushed off to Mt Hymettos 












28 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

where a heap of gold-dust had been found. The heap however 
was guarded by warlike ants. The populace, returning home, 
mocked at one another, “So you thought you’d go gold-smelting!” 
This tale, though failing to explain the origin of the phrase, 
stresses the fact that there was indeed a strong association of hare¬ 
brained schemes with goldsmiths. 9 

It is possible that fragmentary aspects of Mazdean thought 
filtered through to the Greeks long before the full systems were 
known. In any event we may suggest that the graded scheme of 
ages and metals presupposes some sort of link between the metals 
and cycles of the heavenly bodies. The first proof however that the 
outlook suggested by Kratinos’ gold-lead antithesis had become 
connected with metallurgical or chemical experiment is to be 
found in the Materia Medica of Dioskorides, who, a native of 
Kilikia, seems to have flourished in the first half of the ist century 
a.d., studying at Alexandreia and Tarsos, and serving as an army- 
surgeon. He described the roasting of stibnite to get the pharma- 
ceutically-important white oxide of antimony; and like Plinius after 
him, he warned the practitioners not to carry the reaction too far 
lest the product “turn to lead”. He also remarked, “Some record that 


2 . Mithras born from the rock, holding in his hand the grape which in 
the West replaced the haoma of the Persians; Mages on a relief at 
Daskylion, 5 th century b.c. 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 29 

mercury is a constituent part of metals.” 10 Both natural and manu- 
i.u tured mercury were known to the Greeks and Romans; and 
Dioskorides described its production by distillation from cinna- 
har-ore. Plinius called it as “the eternal liquid, poison of all 
tilings”. The early Greek name, hjdrargyros , meant silverwater; 
the Latin term, argentum vivum , meant living-silver. 11 Dioskorides 
w i th his catalogue of some 600 useful plants was well known to the 
alchemists; we find extracts from his work following alchemic 
recipes. Here then we seem definitely on the alchemic trail. 12 

I ’linius gives us the first record of an actual alchemic experiment. 
"I lope drew on the Princeps Gaius, who was most avid for gold, 
to order a great weight of aiiripigmentum , orpiment, to be cooked 
| excoqui]. The result was certainly excellent gold, but of small 
weight, so that he suffered loss.” An operation such as cupellation 
was used to extract gold from metallic sulphurs which suggested 
gold by their colouring; there was as yet no clear distinction 
I ictween the extraction of already-existent gold and the fabrication 
1 >f gold from other materials. 13 

There is a striking alchemic image in the Pumpkinification of 
Claudius, written soon after that emperor’s death, probably by 
Seneca. The poet is describing the Fates at work: 

Threads managed with a lucky hand change colour 
as there they twist. The Sisters gaze in wonder: 
the cheap wool is changed to precious metal 
and the Age of Gold descends on the lovely thread. 

I lere colour-changes, in textile dyeing, suddenly bring about a 
metal transformation; the movement up the colour-scale drives 
1 lie whole process upwards so that gold is produced; and this 
transformation spreads out into the entire world. The poet is 
thinking of works like Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, where Nature 
lakes over the work of dyeing and puts in its place a spontaneous 
odour-enrichment expressive of the Golden Age in which the 
sources of corruption, trade and luxury, have been eliminated and 
man is one with natural process; but instead of the redemption 
I icing simply the result of some Saviour’s advent, it is here ex¬ 
plained in terms of dyes and colour-changes in industrial process 
(spinning thread). The Saviour is indeed present; he is the young 
Nero ascending the throne; but the way in which the Golden Age 
is inaugurated is decisively different from the way in the Eclogue. 

Manilius, the astronomical poet, refers to the alchemic process 





30 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of diplosis, doubling, of a quantity of precious metal. He is dealing 
with Capricorn and the sign’s connection with Fire: 

Hence you influence arts and study. Whatever fire needs 
for its uses, demanding new flames for its works, 
under you is to be assessed. 

To seek out the hidden metals 
and buried riches, calcine the veins of earth, 
double matter with a sure hand by art, 
whatever is fabricated of silver or gold, 
what iron and bronze the burning smithies smelt \solvant\ 
and the hearths of Ceres perfect, rise up your gifts — 

Hence too the mobility of things, and the changed mind 
often wavers. 14 

Note the link of mobilitas and change, mutata mens , with a liquid 
metaphor {natat , swims, wavers). A passage from the anonymous 
Aetna is also worth citing, not because it directly reflects alchemic 
methods, but because of the way in which it merges human and 
metallurgical processes. The earth is seen as being tortured like a 
man on the rack who is forced to tell his secrets: 

The seed of silver is sought, then a vein of gold. 

Bits of earth are flame-tortured and iron-tamed 

till they ransom themselves at a price. With the secret blabbed, 

they are silenced and left to beggary and contempt. 15 

As we shall see, the alchemists looked on their processes in just 
the same way as a sort of torturing, killing, and resurrecting of 
the life of matter. There is further perhaps a touch of alchemic 
thinking in the connection of gold with fermentation in a phrase 
from the Satyricon of Petronius: “She put a hundred gold pieces, 
aurei, into my hand. That was the leaven,/ -;rmen turn , of my fortune, 
peculium .” The gold is seen as doubling, increasing the money he 
owns. The old image of interest or profit as tokos, increase of 
progency, yields to a chemical idiom. 16 

From Plinius, Columella, and Seneca we gain strong indications 
that already a body of alchemic works had gathered round the 
names of Demokritos and the mage Ostanes. In Columella, a 
writer on agriculture, Demokritos appears as a prominent 
magician. He is cited with Mago and Virgil for the generation 
of bees from bullocks’ carcasses, and is called a great sage who 
like Pythagoras was learned in the nature of the universe. 11 
We shall discuss later the relation of the magician Demokritos 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


3 1 


to the atomic philosopher writing under that name; for the 
moment we are concerned with his emergence in works of date- 
able authors. Columella writes: 

Ocmokritos in his book On Antipathies declares that these little vermin 
| caterpillars] are killed if a menstruating woman walks thrice round each 
bed with hair loose and feet bare. After that all the litde worms fall to 
earth and thus die. 18 

I dsewhere, however, he brings out the fact that “Demokritos” 
is often an Egyptian writer, Bolos of Mendes: 

The celebrated writer of the Egyptian race, whose Commentaries, called 
( '.heirokmeta in Greek, are published under the pseudonym of Demokri- 
los, is of opinion that as a precaution against the disease [erysipelas] the 
sheep-hides could be often and carefully examined, so that if any trace 
(>f the disease is by chance found in any of them, we may at once dig a 
l rench on the sheepfold’s threshold, lay the afflicted beast on its back, 
inter it alive, then let the whole flock pass over the buried body. Thus 
(lie disease is driven away. 19 

I lore we meet a passage-rite used to express or bring about the 
change from one condition or level of life to another; the disease 
is left behind as the other sheep are ritually reborn out of its 
dead body. 

Plinius tells us that Demokritos was instructed in magic by 
Ostanes, and repeats that he was connected with the mages— 
(hough Solinus states that in his discussions he argued against 
them. Plinius adds that he violated the tomb of Dardanos to get 
magic books buried there, and himself composed magic books. 20 
Seneca, contradicting the statement by Poseidonios that Demo¬ 
kritos invented the Arch, remarks, “It seems to have slipped your 
memory that this same Demokritos discovered how ivory could 
be softened and by boiling a pebble could be transformed 
\converteretur\ into an emerald: the same process used even today 
for colouring stones amenable to this treatment.” Plinius also 
speaks of works that taught the art of tinting artificial emeralds 
and other brilliant stones. 21 Whether the reference is to Demo¬ 
kritos proper or to Bolos is uncertain; and it is possible that 
works which Seneca and Plinius read as mere recipes of faking 
had a hidden alchemic meaning. What is clear is that the works of 
Bolos, whom we may take to be the founder of Graeco-Roman 
alchemy, were now quite familiar. Bolos (as Demokritos) is later 



32 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


33 


cited by Ailianos for the belief that lions did not sleep: “Demo- 
kritos says that alone of living beasts the lion is born with wide- 
open eyes.” This notion was linked with that of the Lion as a 
symbol of the Sun. 22 

There was much activity of astrologers in the ist century a.d. 
at Rome and elsewhere; and there seem many links between 
astrology and alchemy by this time. Tacitus mentions a Pammenes 
(the name is Egyptian) famed for the Art of the Chaldeans, who 
was expelled from Rome; there was also an alchemist Pammenes, 
described as the teacher of Demokritos in the art of goldmaking. 
George Synkellos, in a passage on Demokritos, says that Pam¬ 
menes was blamed for expressing himself directly, not symboli¬ 
cally. He may have been the Egyptian Phimenas of Sais, to 
whom a recipe of Leyden Papyrus is attributed. 23 The astrologer 
Petosiris appears in Plinius, and Juvenal says of the superstitious 
woman: “She wants to drive to the first milestone, consults her 
book for the right hour. If her rubbed eye itches, she looks at 
her horoscope ere she takes a salve. If ill abed, she thinks the 
hour correct for food that Petosiris prescribed.” 24 There was a 
genuine astrologer of this name, cited by Manethos, Porphyrios, 
Ptolemaios, Yettius Valens, and Firmicus; the last calls him 
“a most just ruler of the Egyptians and a very good astronomer”. 
He and Nechepso, probably living in the 2nd century b.c., seem 
to represent an Egyptian system of astrology as distinct from 
that of the Chaldeans. 25 In an apocalypse he is described as hear¬ 
ing a Divine Voice that reveals to him the truth about the stars. 26 
Plinius says that a theory handed down by Petosiris and Nechepso 
is still extant, called “the Theory of Numbers”: 

For it divides up the Zodiac into groups of three signs. This theory 
shows it possible to attain 124 years of life in the region of Italy. These 
thinkers declared that nobody exceeds the ascendant measure of 90° 
(what is called Rising) and stated that the period itself may be cut short 
by the encounter of maleficient stars or even their rays, and by those of 
the sun. 27 

In alchemical MSS we meet a 'Letter from Petosiris to King 
Nechepso as well as an Organon (or Sphere ) of Petosiris for linking 
a set of numerical calculations with the issue of maladies. There 
is also Petesis, priest and magician, who is called a King of 
Armenia. Petasios is named as the author of Demokritean 


Memoranda ; and the mage Ostanes addresses him. Petesis (Greek 
Isidoros) means Gift-of-Isis; both the Greek and the Egyptian 
forms of the name appear at the head of the MS of St Mark. 28 
A treatise by Olympiodoros, is addressed to Petasios King of 
A rmenia and mentions Petasios the Philosopher as if he were a 
different person. Zosimos mentions a Petesis as an alchemical 
contemporary of Hermes; and citations show him a follower of 
Maria’s school. 29 

All this entanglement does not get us far. Both Petesis and 
Petosiris (Gift-of-Osiris) were common names; Petosiris appears 
as early as Aristophanes as a typical Egyptian. We can however 
infer a general connection of astrology and alchemy. 30 The for¬ 
mula, “Nature rejoices in nature, nature conquers nature, nature 
dominates nature,” fundamental in alchemical theory, is to be 
found in Firmicus, where it may be taken as part of the Petosiris- 
Ncchepso corpus: “One nature conquers another nature . . .” 
This summation of theory is certainly at least Hellenistic in its 
origin. It has been taken as a form of Stoic thought; and a 
scholiast tells us it was used by a “very ancient [Latin] poet”, 
who may have been Ennius. For Ennius seems to have been 
acquainted with Pythagoreanism, another possible source of the 
phrase or at least a system congenial towards the thinking it 
reveals. 31 

For the later ist and early 2nd century we have a passage from 
Lpiktetos the Stoic (a.d. 50-130): “The power of the true staff 
< >f Hermes lies in the fact that it changes all that it touched into 
gold.” 32 He is thinking of the true philosophy (i.e. Stoicism), but 
his metaphor shows that he is aware of alchemic claims to 
transmute metals into gold—and even more important, that these 
claims are associated with Hermes (Mercury). He may be thinking 
of Hermes as the great revealer of alchemy among other things, 
or of mercury the substance, or of both; but in any case his phrase 
is most striking and suggestive. We may also cite a passage from 
Ploutarch, in which he speaks of colour as a dye cast by light. He 
is discussing the moon and remarks: 

Whereas here below shady places in the neighbourhood of lakes and 
rivers, catching the sun, are dyed and made brilliant in robes of purple, 
yes, even of scarlet, and give forth many varied images of colour through 
the reflection of the light, what wonder is it if the vast flood of shadow, 
falling as it were into a celestial ocean of light, not stable nor at rest, but 
agitated by stars infinite in number and receiving mixtures and changes 





34 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of all kind, should extract different colours at different times and give 
them out from the moon. A star or a fire would not in the shadow show 
itself black or glaucous or darkblue, but over mountains or plains or 
sea, many variations of colour from the sun come and go; and he casts 
the lustre of the dye, tempered with shadows and mists as with the hues 
of the painter’s palette .. . 

We can say that men did not look on nature in these terms— 
seeing mixtures and changes and a series of transformative dyes 
—before something of an alchemic climate of thought had 
developed. Ploutarch was also aware of the existence of processes 
to make materials appear golden. He speaks of (bronze or brass) 
vessels that “imitate the glow and the glittering of gold”, and 
calls them “imitation gold” and “counterfeit metal”. Such an 
attitude to alchemic processes is what we would expect from 
someone who knows of them only from the outside and lacks 
the clues which the practitioners kept secret or misleading in 
their recipes. Ploutarch further had learned of the association of 
the seven planets and the seven vowels found in Chaldean 
teachings, as well as the connection of certain letters and 
numbers. 33 

There is also a suggestive passage in the so-called Meditations 
of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in the mid-2nd century. He is in 
one sense expressing the old Greek idea of the continual break¬ 
down of bodies into their component elements; but his terms 
show the effect of Stoic theory together with something of an 
alchemic idea of transformation. “There is to be seen in the things 
of the world, not a bare succession, but an admirable corres¬ 
pondence and affinity. Let that of Herakleitos never be out of 
your mind, that the death of earth is water, and the death of water 
is air, and the death of air is fire, and so on the contrary.” 34 

The astrologic link of planets and metals was fully stated by 
Celsus in the Book of Truth against the Christians, in the later 2nd 
century: 

Those things are obscurely hinted at in the accounts of the Persians, 
and especially in the Mysteries of Mithras, which are celebrated among 
them. In the latter there is a representation of the two heavenly 
revolutions: of the movement of the fixed stars and of that taking place 
among the planets, and of the passage of the soul through them. 

The representation is of the following nature. There is a ladder with 
lofty gates, and on the top of it an eighth gate. The first gate consists of 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 35 

lead, the second of tin, the third of copper, the fourth of iron, the fifth 
i >f a mixture of metals, the sixth of silver, the seventh of gold. 

The first gate they assign to Kronos, indicating by lead the slowness 
of this star; the second to Aphrodite, comparing her to the splendour 
and softness of tin; the third to Zeus, being firm and solid; the fourth to 
I lermes, for both Hermes and iron are fit to endure all things, and are 
moneymaking and laborious; the fifth to Ares because, being composed 
of a mixture of metals, it is varied and unequal; the sixth, of silver, to 
I lie Moon; the seventh of gold, to the Sun—thus imitating the colours 
of the two latter. 35 




j. The still of Demokritos and reconstruction of the mercury still of 

Dioskorides 

The soul in its ascent was thought to give back the qualities it 
had absorbed at each stage of its descent. Thus each halt was a 
sort of transmutation in terms of the relevant metal; after the 
seventh change came the absorption into the luminous bliss of 
i lie eighth sphere. Having come down from Ormuzd’s presence 
by the low gate of the Crab, the soul went up by the lofty gate of 
Capricorn. 36 This creed was popularised by Noumenios of Syria, 
a thinker much esteemed by the Neoplationists and by Origen. 37 

In the Mithraic Mysteries the ascent was expression by the 
initiations into each of the seven stages, with rites, sacraments, 
ordeals reflecting the tests and judgments of the soul after death, 
beginning with the trial before Mithras. In the Mithraion of the 
Seven Spheres at Ostia, seven gates were depicted in mosaic on 
the central floor; in front of the reclining-benches were shown 
the planets, and on the borders of the podia the signs of the 
zodiac. In that of Felicissimus the symbols of seven grades 
appeared in mosaic on seven floor-panels of the central aisle; on 


ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

the eighth panel was a vase surrounded by twigs. In that of the 
Seven Gateways at Ostia, straight behind the entrance, a black- 
white mosaic of the central floor showed a large pinnacled gate¬ 
way flanked on each side by three smaller gates; and again the 
seven planets were added . 38 Seven played a key-role in the rites. 
The cultniche at Dura-Europos was reached by seven steps. A 
crude relief (now at Mannheim) showed a big snake turned to a 
vessel; by it a priest, probably a Father, made a libation in a 
krater (mixing-bowl) on a small altar, with a dog, Mithras’ 
faithful companion at his side; a row of seven small altars were 
also depicted. In Danubian reliefs seven cypresses (sun-trees) 
were shown alternating with seven daggers, on each of which 
hangs a Phrygian cap. A terra-sigillata bowl, on which appear 
lion, vase with serpent, raven, and cock at the sacred meal, 
seems to set out the four elements (water, vessel; fire, lion; 
earth, snake; air, bird). The Persian mages revered the four 
elements and took care not to pollute them . 39 

The three Mithraic crypts found at Rome near the church of 
Santa Prisca deserve a special word. The paintings on the long 
side-walls give glimpses of the liturgic formulas accompanying 
the rites. Each grade is once more represented by its tutelary 
planet; and in one scene the six lower orders pay homage to the 
seventh, that of the Fathers, using the formula: Noma Patribus. 
Noma is an Iranian borrowing, so that the meaning is: “Glory 
to the Fathers.” Another scene shows a procession of six lions, 
while on the grotto’s left side we see the Feast of the Sun and 
Mithras. Verses have been added on some of the lower levels. 
Above the communion-scene the verses conclude: “Accept also 
these Boughs, Holy Father, accept the Lions, through whom 
we give incense, though we ourselves are consumed.” The 
incense has been taken as meant to purify the air and chase demons 
away; but it seems clear that Lion, Incense, Fire, Bough were all 
linked, even identified. A holocaust with incense-burning sym¬ 
bolised the sacrifice and burning of the initiate; the offerer of the 
sacrifice was also himself the victim, who died to be reborn. The 
rite thus expressed a fire-transmutation, turning the initiate into 
sun-gold . 40 

We have noted the sevenfold division of time by the mages, 
with each age owning a planet and a metal. Origen carried the 
imagery into Christian thought, likening history to a ladder up 
which men climbed. The first steps were in time and space, where 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 37 

events lead up to the Mysteries and to the hidden meanings 
accessible only to those who scale the towering heights. 

Although to draw in material here from the Gnostic and Hermetic 
systems is rather like trying to explain the obscure by the even 
more obscure, it will perhaps be useful to point to the part played 
by Hermes-Mercury in the soul-ascent. Hermes, the ancient soul- 
guide into the underworld, was given a celestial role with the 
swing of popular belief from the dark realm of Hades below the 
earth as the site of the afterlife, to the bright spheres of the star- 
world . 41 Ploutarch sees the Heavenly Hermes as the patron of 
the Second Death, sjnoikos, contubernalis. On the tombstone of a 
sailor at Massilia we read: “Among the Dead there are Two 
Companies. One moves on earth, in aither the other goes, among 
llie dance-groups, choroi, of the stars. The second is mine; for I 
have gained a god as guide.” An epigram of the ist century a.d. 
declares: “Wingfooted Hermes took your hand and led you on 
high to Olympos and set you to shine among the stars of the 
sky .” 42 The acquisition of Hermes as guide implied some sort of 
mystery-initiation. In a Mithraic catacomb on the Appian Way 
I lermes-Mercury leads the initiated before Hades and Persephone 
(IMuto and Prosperpine). Here, though in the service of astral 
religion, he reasserts his underworld-image; but he has to point 
upwards. Under Egyptian influences the Sun in his Boat also 
became the death-guide. Near the end of Julian’s satire on the 
Caesars everyone is told to select his “guardian and leader”, and 



4. Relief of priest of Mithras (now at Mannheim); row of seven small 
altars and a huge snake turning its head to a big vessel by the altar where 
the priest, possibly a Father, offers a libation in a krater, while the dog, 

faithful companion of Mithras, sits at his side 

















HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


39 


38 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Julian is advised by Hermes to turn to the Sun: “Keep his com¬ 
mandment and thus procure yourself a cable and sure anchorage 
in life, and when it is necessary to depart from this world, with 
fair hope you’ll find him a leadergod propitious to yourself.” 43 

An Hermetic tradition links crafts of metallurgy, dyeing, and 
so on with the Fallen Angels. The Christian form appears in 
Tertullian: 

Those indeed who first devised these things are held to be damned and 
sentenced to the penalty of death. For they were the angels who fell 
from heaven upon the daughters of men and thus added fresh shame to 
womankind. Certain substances well-hidden and many parts not well 
revealed they then first brought out into the light for the benefit of an 
age much less skilled than ours. They laid bare the working of metals, 
they divulged the qualities of herbs, they made known the power of 
incantations, they directed curious research even to the interpretation 
of the stars. 

But, as a special and as it were peculiar gift for women, they offered 
them the instruments of female pride. They brought the flashing stones 
that give to necklaces their varied hues, the golden bracelets claspt 
about the arm, the artificial dyes that add colour to white wool, and 
even the dark powder that enhances the effect of eyelids and eyelashes. 44 

He asks sarcastically if it was God who showed men how to dye 
wool with herb-juices and shellfish-spit. “He perhaps forgot when 
bidding the universe come to birth, to order purple and scarlet 
sheep?” The Fallen Angels were the ones who “betrayed the 
secret ways of sin, delivered up gold, silver, and their works, and 
among other things taught the art of dyeing fleeces”. He lists 
among those who have had their arts revealed by these Angels, 
“astrologers and haruspices and augurs and mages”. He merges 
the Fall of the Angels with the Expulsions of the Astrologers or 
Mathematici from Rome. “They are driven out like their angels. 
The City and Italy are forbidden to the mathematici as heaven to 
those angels, the same penalty falls on disciples and masters.” 
(An odd identification of the imperial City with Heaven!) 

Similar views appeared in Gnostic, Hermetic and Apocalytic 
writings. In Gnosticism the virtue of moving from Ignorance to 
Revealed Knowledge or gnosis is at times opposed to the sin of 
turning instead to evil lores or forbidden gnosis that ties the 
quester more tightly in the snares of flesh. The Universe Maiden 
or Kore Kosmou, comments on the “meddling audacity” in the 
restless movement of souls, and the same phrase is used of men. 


"They seek what nature conceals in the depths of inaccessible 
sanctuaries. They pursue reality up to the heights, avid to learn 
by their observation what is the established order of celestial 
movement.” 45 

We meet here the theme of the search for hidden records of 
divine lore, which we have already met in the tale of Nenefer- 
kaptah and in the tradition that Demokritos violated the tomb of 
1 )ardanos for magic books. Firmicus speaks of “whatever of the 
divine the ancients brought forth from the Egyptian sanctuaries”, 
and Loukian in a supposed account of an incarnation as Pythagoras: 

In brief I was a sophist; for I must tell the truth, I take it. However, I 
was not uneducated or unacquainted with the noblest sciences. I even 
went to Egypt to study with the prophets, penetrated into their sanctu¬ 
aries, and learned the Books of Horos and Isis by heart. Then I sailed 
away to Italy and worked on the folk in that quarter of the world so 
well that they thought me a god. 46 

The theme of the ancient book or stele is embedded in early 
alchemic accounts; and we shall hear more of it. But some further 
examples may be cited here. Euhemeros, the Hellenistic romancer 
from Sicily, narrates how he found in the Red Sea, on the Isle of 
Panchaia, a stele hidden deep in the temple of Zeus Triphylios; 
on it were engraved the Deeds or Praxeis of Ouranos, Kronos, 
and Zeus, by Zeus’ own hands. The aretologies of Isis from 
Kyme, Andros and Ios, all announce their derivation from a 
stele in the temple of Ptah-Hephaistos at Memphis; and Diodoros 
gives the same origin for a stele he purports to cite from Nysa in 
Arabia. 47 The author of the Axiochos, in the last century b.c., 
refers to a revelation of the mage Gobryes on the fate of souls; 
the mage’s grandfather, after Xerxes’ expedition, had found two 
inscribed bronze tablets at Delos, brought from the land of the 
Hyperboreans. 48 To support his myth of souls in the moon, 
Ploutarch cites ancient sacred parchments found at Carthage, 
which “after the destruction of the first city, were secretly 
carried off, and, without anyone knowing, were left a long time 
in the earth”. 49 The Potter’s Oracle, after being dictated to the 
sacred scribe, before the king and the priests, by the prophet in 
a state of trance, is deposited (the account runs) at Amenophis 
orders in the sacred archives of Heliopolis, where all may consult 
it. 59 

Astrologic manuscripts have similar tales. Sacred scribes of 


40 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


41 


perfect wisdom, pansophoi , under King Psammetichos wrote a 
hmarium in hieratic script, which was deposited in the holy-of- 
holies of the temple of Heliopolis and long after discovered. We 
hear also of a Royal Book put into a ship, miraculously saved by 
the gods, to reach the Trapezoutik Coast, wherever that may 
have been . 51 The astronomer Ptolemaios falls back on a story of 
an ancient roll, apparently to give prestige to his system: 

Recently we have come on an Ancient Manuscript, much damaged, 
which contains a natural and consistent explanation of the order and 
number [in Egyptian nativities]; and at the same time the degrees 
reported in these nativities were found to agree with the tabulation of 
the ancients. The book was very lengthy in expression and excessive in 
demonstration, and its damaged state made it hard to read, so that I 
could barely gain an idea of its general purport. That too, in spite of the 
help offered by the tabulation of the terms, better preserved because 
they were placed at the end of the book. 52 

The Kjranides, a kind of Hermetic Bestiary, also uses the fiction 
of the sacred book. In the original prologue (preserved in a Latin 
text that holds an earlier tradition than the Greek manuscripts) 
we read: “This book was engraved in Syriac letters on a column 
[or stele] of iron.” The more expanded account of Harpokration 
runs thus: 

I happened to encounter an old man very learned in foreign and Greek 
literature. He called himself a Syrian, but he had been made captive and 
remained there [at Seleukeia on the Tigris or a town nearby]. This old 
man then made me go with him all round the town and he showed me 
everything. Arriving at a spot some 4,000 [paces] distant from the town, 
we saw, near a large tower, a column that the people of Syria [Assyria] 
said had been brought and set there for the health and cure of the 
townsfolk. 

On scrutinising it closer, I saw that this colu mn bore an inscription 
in strange letters. The old man, on being questioned, soon agreed to 
explain the matter to me, and I listened to his account of the column as 
well as the translation that he gladly made into the Aiolic [Greek] 
tongue from the barbarian script. 

“You see,” he said, “my son, the disposition of these three towers, 
one which is 5,000 [paces] away, the other, 2,500, the third, 4,000. They 
were built by the Giants when they wanted to mount to the heavens. It 
was because of this impious folly that they were struck by lightning or 
stricken with madness for the rest of their days by the Judgment of God 
•—or else, God, in his wrath, threw them into the island of Crete.” 


The old man, who showed me these matters, bade me measure with 
a cord the height of the stone. I worked out then the nearest one and 
found it 32 cubits high, 78 wide; it included a staircase of 208 steps. We 
saw also the sacred enclosure, in the midst of which there was a temple 
with a staircase of 365 steps in silver and another of 60 steps in gold. 
Wc ascended them to offer up prayers to God, while the old man 
revealed to me mysteries of the divine power that it isn’t fitting to re¬ 
tell. 

As for me, despite my wish to know more, I set the rest aside for later 
on, and inquired only about the column. The old man then, lifting up a 
covering of byssos, showed me the inscription in foreign letters. As he 
knew the language, I begged and implored him to explain the text, 
without evasions or jealousy. Here then is what he read out from the 
column. 53 

“Without evasions or jealousy” is an Arab touch. From Al- 
Razi on, the Arabs distinguished allegorising alchemy from the 
practical side, and we find a pride being taken at times in setting 
out plainly what has been left hidden. The author of The Aim of 
the Sage states that he penetrated the secrets of the hieroglyphic 
texts engraved on Egyptian temples so as to show that he was not 
“envious” like the (Greek) ancients. 

The Golden Compendium of Flaccus Africus, which declares 
itself a compilation extracted from the Kjranides, tells the same sort 
of tale as Harpokration, but substitutes tomb for sacred column 
or stele : 

Flaccus Africus, disciple of Belben, to Claudius of Athens the Calculator 
(?), good continuation of studies and good success in research. 

After the books of the ancient Kjranides, which are known to you 
and which are attributed to your colleague Harpokration, I have dis¬ 
covered in the town of Troy, hidden in a Tomb with the bones of the 
first king Kyranos, this little work entitled Compendium of Gold, because 
it is a summary of extracts, made with care, from the more important 
work of the Kjranides. hi - 

Kyranos, though buried at Troy, is meant to be a Persian king. 
Books were said to be found also in the tombs of Kleopatra, 
Alexander, Hermes Trismegistos. According to the Arabs, 
I lermes (the first one, living before the Flood) built the pyramids 
to deposit in them all the secrets of knowledge before the world 
was destroyed by cataclysm, by water and fire. Then he and 








43 


4 2 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Agathodaimon were later burled there as well. Belben, of whom 
Flaccus calls himself disciple, seems the sage Apollonios of 
Tyana, the Balinas of the Arabs. 

Finally we may note in magical papyri: 

Sacrifice of perfumes to Moon, of Claudianos. This very book, 
property of the Dozen Gods, has been discovered at Aphroditopolis 
[in Egypt], near the Very Great Goddess Aphrodite the Heavenly, who 
embraces all the Universe. 

[Prayer to Hermes] Your true name is inscribed on the sacred stele 
of the adjton at Hermopolis, there where you were born . .. 

Great is Lady Isis! Copy of the Sacred Book discovered in the 
Archives of Hermes. It is the Method dealing with the 29 letters, thanks 
to which Isis with Hermes found her brother and husband Osiris, 
whom she was seeking. Invoke Helios and all the Gods of the Abyss on 
the subject of the things about which you desire to get a Sign. Take a 
male palm 29 leaves, inscribe on each leaf the names of the gods, and, 
after saying a prayer, lift the leaves two by two. The remaining leaf, the 
last, read it and you’ll find your sign relating to what interests you, and 
you’ll have the revelation quite clear. . . . 

[A scare-spell of Solomon, “effective both for children and for 
adults”] Come to by the intermediary of this man or this child, so and 
so, and enlighten me with precision, for I pronounce your names which 
Hermes Trismesgistos has engraved at Heliopolis in hieroglyphic 
characters. ... 

We have composed this moonbook by putting two small books 
together: one is in the hand of the sacred scribe Melampous, addressed 
to Nechepso King of Egypt, the other has been found at Heliopolis in 
Egypt, in the temple, in the holy-of-holies, engraved in hieroglyphics 
under King Psammetichos .. . 

Explanations given according to the temples, in use among the sacred 
scribes. Because of the evil curiosity of the vulgar, they engraved the 
names of plants and other magical instruments on divine statues, so 
that no one, without the necessary precautions, might meddle indis¬ 
creetly in magic, because of the errors that then resulted. We however 
give the solution, drawn from a large number of copies and secret 
writings of every kind . . , BS 

After this glance at secret and sacred sources, we may turn back 
to the theme of forbidden knowledge. The Kore Kosmou tells 
further how God warns the souls not to commit any act of revolt 

or else by my sacred breath £ pneuma\ , by this mixture \krama\ 
out of which I have created you, and by these soulmaking hands, 

I won’t be long in forging chains and penalties for you.” But: 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

After taking what had been mixed of matter, my son Horos, at first 
they sought to understand it, then they worshipped the mixture, work 
of the Father, and asked themselves of what it was composed. That 
wasn’t easy for them to recognise. Then indeed, as they were given up 
to this very research, they were overcome with terror of encountering 
the Father’s wrath and they set themselves to carry out his will. 56 

The apocryphal Book of Enoch (middle or end of 2nd century) lays 
down that the source of human sin is the forbidden knowledge 
taught to men by the angels overcome by love of women. In their 
heavenly homes the angels knew no women, but now they 
instilled into the daughters of men their own spirit of darkness, 
with which they gorged themselves before coupling. They poured 
out all the hidden things: “ pharmakeiai [drugs or charms] and 
spells and root-gatherings”, and they disclosed the lore of herbs. 
“Others revealed the workings of metals and precious stones, the 
dyeing art, and the use of spells, astrology, semiotika, star-watching, 
moon-leading.” Semiotika means Signlore; probably here it 
refers to the art of interpreting the sky, but it could also refer to 
the medical art of diagnosis. George Synkellos writes of “the 
signs [semeia] of the earth, the signs of the sun, the signs of the 
moon”. In Enoch these pursuits beget a great impiety; the women 
bear giants to the angels; the giants devour human beings—and 
probably through their example men learn to eat flesh. Men appeal 
to God, who announces a day of judgment. Similar ideas appear 
in the Hermetic Asclepius, in the Egyptian Gnostic works from 
Chernoboskion, and in the Clementine Homilies (probably 4th 
century). 57 

Enoch is of interest also as connecting the scheme of planetary 
metals with creation. The heavens are regarded as made of 
mountains of metals: “Then my eyes saw all the hidden things of 
heaven that shall be, an iron mountain, and one of copper, and 
one of silver, and one of gold, and one of soft metal, and one of 
lead.” Elsewhere we hear that silver and soft metal come from the 
earth; lead and tin from a fountain by which an eminent angel 
stands. Also there are Seven Mountains of Magnificent Stones, 
each differing from the other, and “Seven Mountains full of 
choice nard and aromatic trees and cinnamon and pepper.” As 
for creation: 

And then I made firm the waters, that is the depths, and I surrounded 
the waters with light, and I created Seven Circles and I fastened them 


45 


44 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

like crystal, moist and dry, that is to say, like glass and ice, and as for 
the waters and also the other elements, I showed each of them their 
paths, to the Seven Stars, each of them in their heaven, how they should 
g°- 

This glance at hermetic and gnostic writings, which can generally 
be dated of the 3rd century, has not given us any sure links with 
alchemy; but it has helped us to feel something of the atmosphere 
of the period, of the spiritual and intellectual climate when the 
work of Bolos of Mendes was having its effect. The references to 
baphika, dyeing processes, among the forbidden arts, perhaps 
provides a link with the alchemic world. Thus, the fourfold 
division of tinctures (gold, silver, precious stones, purple), which 
we find with Bolos, is in effect found in Enoch. “The angel Azael 
taught men how to forge swords and he made them recognise the 
metals and the art of treating them.. ., precious stones of all 
sorts, and tinctures.” If we look at the two important chemical 
papyri, we find the first (Leyden) deals with dyeing of gold and 
silver, the second (Stockholm) with dyeing precious stones and 
stuffs. Ancient alchemic treatises at times have the names of 
Physikai Baphai. The fragmentary work of Bolos is given no title 
in the MSS, but it probably was Baphika or Books of Physikai 
Baphai or merely Dyeing Books (Biblioi Baphikai). 5S And when we 
look more closely at the cosmogonic pictures of the hermetic 
writers we feel yet closer to the alchemists. Take the opening of 
the Poimandres. One day, as the narrator meditates, he falls into a 
sort of trance—as if all his senses were bound: “as happens to 
those overwhelmed by a heavy sleep after eating too much” or 
by extreme fatigue. He has a vision of a huge person, who announ¬ 
ces himself as Poimandres, “the Nous [mind] of the Authentia 
[absolute power]”. The dreamer says, “I want to be instructed as 
to beings, understand their nature, and know God. O, how I 
wish to hear.” Poimandres bids him remember all that he is told. 

At these words, he changed in aspect and suddenly everything opened 
before me in a moment and I saw a limitless vision, everything become 
light, serene and joyous, and at the sight I was smitten with love. And a 
little afterwards there was a darkness showing up below and coming 
in its turn, fearful and sombre, which rolled in tortuous spirals like a 
snake, as it seemed to me. And this darkness changed into a sort of 
liquid nature, shaken in an indescribable manner and exhaling a vapour 
such as comes from fire and producing a sort of noise, an unspeakable 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

groaning. Then there jetted from it a voice of appeal, without articula¬ 
tion, such as I compared with a voice of [fire]. 59 

The imagery seems strongly alchemic; we see an experiment of 
boiling liquids, of smoky exhalations, of spiralling vapours. 
Earlier demiurges put the elements together in direct composi¬ 
tions; work like carpenters or potters; compute like geometers 
or mathematicians. But here God is working as a chemist. We 
get the same sort of alchemic god in the Kore Kosmou. 

As he wanted the upper world to be no longer inert, but had decided 
to fill it with pneumata [spirits], so that even in detail it might not 
remain motionless and inactive, he began to play the Artisan [or, to 
carry out the Art, Techne], using sacred substances for the production of 
the work. 

Taking from himself sufficient pneuma, and by an intelligent mixture 
uniting it with fire, he brewed it up with certain unknown substances. 
Then, having unified this product, each element with another, while 
accompanying himself with certain secret incantations, he very strongly 
agitated the whole mixture, till there boiled up to the surface of the 
mixture a sort of matter, subtler, purer, more transparent from 
the ingredients of which it was made. This was translucent, and only 
the Artisan saw it. 

And as it did not melt in the heat when it was drawn out of the fire, 
nor grow cold when completed out of the pneuma, but fully kept, in its 
particular and appropriate nature, the composition of the mixture that 
formed it—composition that precisely, basing himself on the most 
favourable name and the fact that it acted comfortably with this name, 
God called Psychosis [Animation]. 

From this crust God made to be born in adequate number myriads 
of souls, fashioning for his design with order and measure, as a worker 
of experience and in fitting propertion, the foam issued from the mixture 
itself, so that there was not the least difference between the souls more 
than was necessary: taking into consideration that the foam frothing to 
the surface after God had done his stirring was not everywhere the 
same. The first layer was better and denser than the second, and 
altogether purer; and the second layer, inferior enough to the first, was 
still much better than the third. And so on till the sixtieth rank of souls 
completing the total number. 

God established by a law that the soul would all be eternal since 
they came from a single substance that he alone had known how to 
bring to perfection. And he assigned them sections and depots in the 
heights of the celestial nature, so that they might turn the cylinder 
according to a determined order and a suitable disposition, and might 
make their Father rejoice. 60 


historical references 


47 


46 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The turn to a geometrical form, the cylinder, at the end comes as 
a jarring note after the fluid chemical idiom of the preceding parts, 
which describe the processes transforming spirit into individual 
souls, pneuma into psychai. These passages from Voimandres and 
Kore Kosmou are highly sophisticated and do not suggest rough 
sketches by some tyro at an alchemic type of cosmogony. How 
far back did the type go ? We have a valuable clue in the Ptolemaic 
creation-myth set out at the entry of the great hypostyle hall at 
Karnak. There Ptolemaios VII (Euergetes II), 145-116 b.c., in his 
dedications on the second Pylon, covered with reliefs in his own 
image the face of the gate, which seems to have been previously 
undecorated; and he remade the reliefs of Ramses II on the 



5. Ancient Egyptian goldsmith at crucible 


southern wall of the window-opening. The operation can thus be 
described as a fresh consecration in his name. Cosmogonic ideas 
are given a new form. “Pie made it [Thebes], he created it, he 
cooked it with the Flame of his Eye as Land on the Water’s edge. 
He [still] gives so that it rejoices in the heat of his Uraeus, great- 
of-flame.” 61 In the hymns of the Leyden papyrus going back to 
Ramses II we read, “Water and Earth were in it [Thebes] at the 
beginning. Sand came to establish a territory, to constitute a soil. 
When that emerged, the Earth was.” There, as in Genesis, we fin d 
expressed a division or separation-out of the two elements, 
nothing more. And we find this idiom still repeated in Ptolemaic 
days, e.g. “You are the Sand . . . from which was taken to create 


1 lie Two Lands.” A halfway house, it is true, may be found in the 
Ptolemaic texts at Medient Habu on a little temple consecrated to 
the primordial gods of Thebes. There we are told that Amun-Re 
made the light shine in the darkness and (made?) every day and 
every night; he shone on the waters and the earth was in darkness; 
all the universe was in the liquid abyss; by the light he produced 
dryness; and organised everything; at once the father and the 
mother of the gods, he ordered the return of the sun after each 
setting.. . ; he made the sky for his soul’s cradle, and the akhet 
(horizon) hides his person. Here we see the heat of the sun’s rays 
used to explain the drying-out process; and we can attribute the 
reasoning to a general growth of rational thinking, which sought 
for as natural an explanation of phenonema as possible; there 
seems no need to invoke a Jewish influence, that of Genesis / 12 
However, we go much further when the action of the sun’s rays is 
supplanted by that of a cooking process. We then move from a 
natural process to one derived from human techniques. The 
account given by the historian Diodoros of the world’s origin in 
the last century b.c. shows a link with the Karnak text rather than 
with Greek cosmogonies. Thales seems to have taken over the 
earlier Egyptian notion of a primitive cosmos of water, out of 
which the earth merely emerged in division to float like a raft. 
Anaximandros had a more elaborate system in which fire or heat 
played its part in bringing about the separations of the elements; 
but the movements involved are wholly mechanical. Diodoros 
on the contrary shows definite if sketchy chemical notions. First 
was a primal unity; then came the separatings-out. 

The air gained the power of ceaseless motion; and as it is light and 
buoyant by nature, the fiery part of it gathered into the highest regions, 
with the result that the sun and other heavenly bodies were caught up in 
the total whirl [dine]. Meanwhile the slimy muddy part, with the conden¬ 
sation of the wet sections, settled by reason of its weight at the bottom. 
Then, stirred up and churned over continually, the wet parts formed the 
sea, while the more solid parts became soft muddy soil. As the sun’s 
fire shone on the land, the latter became first of all firm; then, as its 
surface was in a ferment because of the warmth, portions of the wet 
swelled up in masses in many places, in which pustules covered with 
delicate membranes made their appearance. Such a phenomenon may 
still be seen in marshland when very hot air passes suddenly over 
frozen ground. From these, living creatures were generated by the 
heat. 63 




49 


48 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

And so on. Diodoros was much interested in Egypt and its 
thought. The source of his imagery must be sought in the Egypt 
of his day, in the intellectual circles of Alexandreia rather than in 
earlier Greek philosophy. The Karnak text and his formulations 
do not look back; they look forward towards alchemy. At 
Karnak we meet the notion of boiling; Diodoros adds fermenta¬ 
tion; and a further stage appears in an hermetic fragment from the 
Discourse to Ammorr. 

The Nature of the All supplies the All with Two Movements, the one 
according to the power [djnamis\ proper to it, the other according to 
activity [energeia]. One penetrates throughout the whole world and 
maintains it from within; the other is coextensive with the world and 
envelops it from outside. And these two movements go and come 
together throughout all things. 

1 he Nature of the All, bringing to birth the things which come into 
being, gives the facility of growing to all that is born, on one side 
sowing its own seeds, on the other side having a mobile matter at its 
disposal. Once moved, matter warms itself up and becomes fire and 
water, one full of vigour and force, the other passive. Fire, opposed to 
water, dries up a part of it, and thus is formed the earth floating on the 
water. Water continues to be dried up all around, and so there is dis¬ 
engaged from the three [water, earth, and fire] a vapour. Thus is born 
the air. 

These elements have entered into combination according to the 
harmonic relation, and, of their own accord, there is a born a pneuma 
and a seed analogous to the enveloping pneuma. This pneuma , once 
fallen into the womb [or matrix] does not remain inactive in the 
interior of the seed. And as it does not remain inactive, it transforms the 
seed, and that, by this transformation, acquires growth and size. 64 

Here we see various Aristotelian formulations in the process of 
change under pressure from Stoic ideas, which introduce the idea 
of dynamic penetrating all things and thus vitally linking them. As 
part of this more active conception, the Aristotelian mixtures and 
dissolutions of the elements cease to be merely a matter of 
arithmetical proportions—the harmonic relation; they take on a 
chemical aspect, or at least are explained in terms of heat-processes 
and organic changes. This passage perhaps gives us a clue as to the 
way in which Stoic notions of pneuma helped to break down the 
old abstractions and make men search out dynamic and organic 
lines of explanation for phenomena. By the 6th century we find 
Simplikios, the last Neoplatonist, stating, “Matter is always truly 


HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

i lie last sediment. Hence also the Egyptians call it the dregs of the 
first life, which they symbolically denominate water, matter being 
as it were a certain mire.” Perhaps we can recognise a sort of 
c onfused transition between the old and the new attitudes in the 
creation-formulas in magical texts, e.g. a spell to be said over 
dogbites: “Hear these words of Hor who smothered the heat, who 
lias descended to the eternal waters and cast a solid foundation to 
die earth.” It is not clear there, however, if the heat-smothering 
brings about the emergence of the earth. 66 

Attempts have been made to explain the Karnak text as the 
result of ideas of Ionian Presocratic philosophy intruding on the 
I 'Egyptian world in the 6th century b.c. and spreading with Greek 
influences under the Saite kings. This however is a most implaus¬ 
ible explanation for a 2nd-century text; it is much more natural 
to look to contemporary Alexandreia for the place-of-origin of 
"l he new ideas. In any event, as we noted, early Greek philosophy 
does not show any impact of cooking or smelting processes. Such 
an impact does not arrive till the 4th century b.c., when Aristotle 
remarks, “Techniques are a copy of nature; it is all the same 
whether the processes take place in kitchen utensils or in the 
organs of plants and animals.” 66 Biological science is beginning, 
with attention paid to processes of organic growth. The verb 
which Diodoros uses to express the earth in fermentation seems 
first used by Theophrastos in dealing with plants. 67 A big advance 
was being made; but it took the Stoic concept of pnenma , of 
pervasive tensions in the whole universe, of unifying fields of 
force, to provide an effective system in which to incorporate the 
new approaches. Processes of cooking or boiling and processes of 
brewing or fermenting were among those which laid the basis for 
alchemy. Their intrusion into the thought of the 4th century b.c. 
thus represents what we may call proto-alchemy in its first 
phases. 

Diodoros’ account of the effect of the sun in producing minerals 
is also worth citing; for it uses the imagery of dyeing or tincturing 
which was playing a key-part in the alchemic concepts. Thus, 
rock-crystals “are composed of pure water hardened, not by 
action of cold, but by the influence of divine fire, and thus they are 
never subject to corruption, and they are dyed many hues when 
breathed on”. Smaragdi (probably emeralds) and beryllia (diminu¬ 
tive of beryl), “found in the shafts of coppermines, get their colour 
from being dipped and bound together in a bath of sulphur”. 












50 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Chrysolites “are produced, they say, by a smoky exhalation due to 
the sun’s heat and thus get their colour. So what is called false- 
gold, we are told, is fabricated by mortal fire, made by man, by 
dipping the rock-crystal into it.” Dark red stones have been made 
by greater compression of light; and the colours of birds and 
flowers, as well as the smells of the latter, have been brought about 
by effects of the sun similar to those begetting the coloured 
stones. 68 A chemical idiom drawn from dyeing has been imposed 
on the Aristotelean conceptions. 


3 

More Historical References 


We have now reached the period when alchemy was venturing 
more in the open. One aspect of the alchemic climate of thought 
is the way in which colour is more and more seen, not as an 
incidental quality of objects, but as an integral part of their 
nature. We saw that kind of idea becoming strong in Ploutarch. 
We find it again in Plotinos, the great Neoplatonist of the later 2nd 
century. Colour is felt to be an essential quality thrown out by a 
centre of life or power. “That light known, then indeed we are 
stirred towards those beings in longing and rejoicing over the 
radiance about them. Each one of them exists for itself, but 
becomes an object of desire by the colour cast upon it from the 
Good, source of those graces and the love they evoke.” Here the 
colour is viewed as an expression or revelation of the qualities 
embodied in the being, its power of dynamic attraction. “As soon 
as the glow from above has pervaded it, the soul gathers strength, 
truly spreads its wings,” and rises in quest of the higher object. 
The psyche is itself like gold covered with dirt. That is, it owns the 
highest constellation of qualities, but has to regain or liberate 
these from a contamination or overlaying by matter of a lower 
level. 1 

Some elements of these positions go very far back. We are 
reminded of the Homeric passage where divinising gold and silver 
are shed as a ebaris or grace on the hero. But what had once been 
an unstable intuition has now become part of an elaborate and 
t horoughly worked-out system of thought. Many ingredients have 
gone into this system—Pythagorean, Platonic, and Stoic; but to 
1 he Stoic concept of pervasive tensional force has been added ideas 
drawn from alchemy: the idea of a hierarchical system of levels in 
matter, with gold as highest level, expressing complete stability 
and inner harmony. There is an interesting phrase in Loukian’s 
account of Peregrinos’ self-immolation by fire at Olympos: “he 


52 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


53 


hoped to be set up golden.” The verb used, anistemi, can mean 
both “set up a statue” and “resurrect from the dead”. 2 And we 
may note the phrase in Latin “to have a gold beard”, meaning 
“to be a god”. 3 The origin here however seems to lie in the days 
when Roman looters came up against the ivory-and-gold tech¬ 
niques of Greek statuary. 

Further, in an argument about Matter, Plotinos makes a direct 
reference to alchemy, assuming the possibility of both an upward- 
transformation into gold and a downward one into water: 

. . . Corruption is of that which is composite. But if this be so, each 
sensible thing consists of matter and form. This too witnesses induction, 
demonstrating that the thing which is corrupted is a composite. 
Analysis likewise proves the same thing: as if, for instance, a pot should 
be resolved into gold; but gold into water; and the water being 
corrupted will require an analogous process. 

The views of Plotinos about gold and dirt can be found also 
among the Valentinian Gnostics, who divided men into pneumatikoi, 
who possessed gnosis, and animal, who were merely bound to obey 
the moral law. The men of pneuma could take no harm from the 
world any more than gold lost its essential quality when dipped in 
excrement. 4 Iamblichos, a Neoplatonist around a.d. 300, linked 
the theurgic art or techne —the art of controlling the gods or divine 
force in various ways—with the discovery of “suitable receiving 
instruments”. The art thus “often connects together stones, 
plants, animals, perfumes, and other sacred objects, perfect and 
divine, and of all this makes a perfect and pure receiver”. He says: 
The custom that invokers have of bearing stones and herbs, of 
binding certain sacred bonds and unbinding them, of opening what 
is closed and of changing the intentions of those who receive the god, 
by making them praiseworthy instead of harmful, as they were—all 
this shows well that the pneuma comes from outside. 5 

These passages must be read in terms of the thesis of sacrifice he is 
setting out, according to which the fire suppresses and also assimi¬ 
lates the matter of the offerings, transforming it upwards inside a 
hierarchical system. He discourses on 

the offerings of sacrifices by fire which devours their matter and 
suppresses it and assimilates it without being assimilated. For this 
offering leads to the divine fire, celestial and immaterial, but is not 
dragged down by its weight to below, in the direction of matter and 

generation. 


il there were some pleasure or joy coming from the vapours of 
mailer that charms the daimones, matter would remain in its integrity; 
for the efflux coming from it would then be more abundant for those 
to whom it is destined, instead of it being wholly consumed and 
destroyed and transformed into a pure and subtle fire. 

I le sees the processes of transformation of matter as simultane- 
i nisly processes of transformation of man, exactly in the key of the 
alchemists: 

All that is in us becomes like to gods, just as the fire assimilates all 
hard and solid objects to subtle and luminous bodies; and it carries us 
also by sacrifice and the fire of the altars to the divine fire, just as fire 
mounts to fire, and this assumption draws up to the divine and celestial 
beings what is heavy and solid. 6 

The theurgic process of transforming man and matter by means of 
lire corresponds very closely to the alchemic fires of transforma¬ 
tion. As a thaumaturge, a wonderworker, Iamblichos himself 
sought to transform his body; and Eunapios records the ideas 
held about him: 

“A rumour has reached us through your slaves that when you pray 
to I he gods you rise aloft from the earth more than ten cubits to all 
appearance—that your body and your garments change to a beautiful 
golden hue—and presently when your prayer is ended your body 
becomes as it was before you prayed. And then you come down to 
earth and associate with us.” 

Iamblichos was not at all given to laughter, but he laughed at these 
remarks. And he answered them: “He who thus deluded you was a 
witty fellow.” 7 

I '.unapios, however, probably believed the account. He tells how 
Iamblichos raised up an Eros and an Anteros from two springs, 
and how once at a seance when an Egyptian invoked Apollo (Hor), 
to everyone’s amazement the god appeared, but Iamblichos said: 
“My friends, stop wondering: this is only the ghost, eidolon, of a 
gladiator.” 8 In alchemic MSS Iamblichos appears as the author 
of two processes of transmutation, though we cannot trust the 
attribution. Some magicians at this time, we may note, were 
thought capable of completely changing their shape. Ammianus 
tells us of charges against Papa, King of Armenia: that he was 
“wonderfully skilled through the spells \incentiones : pipe- 
blowings] of Circe in changing and weakening men’s bodies; and 
3 


54 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


55 


they added that, having by arts of that kind struck them blind and 
by changing his own form and that of his followers, he passed 
through their lines.” 9 

Some later historians tell us that Diocletian destroyed the alchemic 
books in Egypt. John of Antioch, writing under Heraklios in the 
7th century, is the first we know to tell the story, though it has 
been suggested that he is following the historian Panodoros, an 
Egyptian monk, of the early 4th century. Panodoros, who found 
many faults in the work of Eusebios while drawing extensively on 
it, was often cited by George Synkellos. “Diocletian,” we are 
told, “had burned about 290 of the ancient books of Chemia dealing 
with gold and silver so that men might not enrich themselves by 
this art and draw sources of wealth from it, which would enable 
them to revolt against the Romans.” 10 The story is also told in the 
Acts of St Prokopios. Our version of these Acts seems of the 10th 
century, though they were cited at the Second Council of Nikaia 
in the early 8th and the first reduction may go back to the time of 
Julian in the 4th. 11 If we may trust the account, alchemic activi¬ 
ties must have been widespread and have become linked with the 
growth of Egyptian nationalism in a protest against the imperial 
system. 

No alchemic text however refers to the persecution. This lack 
may be due to prudence. Throughout its early years alchemy had 
been associated with arts such as astrology which were liable to 
attract unwelcome attention from the authorities; and the 
practitioners may have felt averse from perpetuating any memories 
of suppression. To own magic books had become a crime that 
involved the burning of the books and the exile of the owners to 
an island. Poor folk, humiliores, found with such books, were liable 
to suffer capital punishment. 12 Constantius, Valentinian I, and 
Valens strove to put down the arts of divination, astrology, and 
magic. Constantius made the consultation of a professor of magic 
an offence punishable by death. 13 Certainly there is no reason to 
consider an attack on alchemists at all unlikely in such a world. 

Quite possibly there was something of a campaign against 
alchemy as part of the drive to reform the mints in the period of 
Diocletian and Constantine. The empire had undergone an acute 
period of inflation and monetary collapse; and there was a need to 
reorganise the coinage on a new level. In the decades of confusion 
there seem to have been many attempts by the moneyers to twist 


things to their own profit. About 320, for instance, Pannonia 
si 111 wed vast enterprises in the production of false money, gold 
nnl bronze both being involved. 14 The clearest statement of the 
law of counterfeiting occurs in two constitutions of Constantine. 
I!ic first, of November 318, is addressed to the Vicar of Africa, 
but its terms suggest a general application all over the empire. 
Still, 1 lie Carthage mint had been closed down a few years before, 
lifter the suppression of a 311 revolt, and the government of 
Africa may have had a particularly grave problem of money- 
I.iking to tackle. Constantine laid down that the punishment for 
iiiliillcrina numismata was to depend on sex and social status. A 
tleeurion or his son was liable to perpetual exile, with confiscation 

I >i property at the emperor’s discretion; a plebeius was to go into 

II need labour for the rest of his life, losing all his property; a slave 
w in to die. On 6 July 326 a further constitution, addressed to the 
I ’n >c< >nsul of Africa, tightened up the previous provisions, making 
Ions of property automatic for anyone found guilty. The reason 
lor the law was stated as the need to keep the mints fully 
employed. 15 

further enactments went on during the 4th century. For 
instance, a constitution of 18 February 343 offered a reward to 
informers who brought about the conviction of counterfeiters of 
gold coins. Men who forged the coins or clipped genuine ones 



6 . Workshop of a moneyer at Rome 


57 


56 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

were to be burned alive. That forgeries were being extensively 
carried out is suggested by a constitution of 12 February 149, 
which, while ordering that metal-workers who “purged” bronze 
coins of their silver coating should incur the capital punishment, 
added that those on whose estates and in whose houses the opera¬ 
tion was conducted, should lose their property. 16 

The 326 constitution, we may note, used the odd term “false 
fusion of coins”, thus referring not to the coins’ falsehood but to 
the composing metal. Ulpian had described two ways of tampering 
coins, using the verbs fingere and tingere. Fingere, to touch, probably 
meant the removal of gold by rubbing, which was less easy to 
detect than the use of a file; tingere , to wash or dye, has been taken 
to refer to the use of aqua regia to remove gold—many coins of the 
early 7th century found at Alexandreia had thus been treated. 17 
But in view of the common alchemic usage of the term “dyeing” 
for the production of colour-changes in metals, we may ask 
whether tingere did not have a wider sphere of reference, including 
attempts to colour coins, to give a golden or silver look to copper 
coins. 

Certainly we should expect at least some members or groups of 
mintworkers, monetarii, to become interested in alchemy in these 
disturbed years. They were certainly suspected of all kinds of 
adulteration, though Constantine’s wording suggests that they 
were thought to do their counterfeiting, not in the superintended 
workshops, but on premises provided by accomplices. Suspicions 
about their activites reached such a point that the anonymous 
reformer-and-inventor of the 4th century, who made a report to 
the government, thought they should all be forced to work on an 
island where they would have no contact at all with the outer 
world. 18 

The story about the suppression of alchemists linked them with 
the forces of national revolt in Egypt. Certainly the monetarii could 
become leaders of discontent. Aurelian had to suppress a revolt 
of theirs at Rome with some 7,000 dead; and fear of the mint- 
workers and the public leatherworkers in Kyzikos made Julian 
forbid the Christians in his retinue to enter the town lest they 
should join those societies in some sedition. 19 There thus seems 
nothing unlikely in the theory that alchemists were lumped 
together with counterfeiters in general by the imperial authorities 
at this time, and that any of their books, coming under the cate¬ 
gories of both magic and forgery, would have been burned. 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

The monetary situation in Egypt as inflation gathered speed in 

I lie second half of the 3rd century is shown by an order issued in 
260: 

from Aurelios Ptolemaios also called Nemesianos, Strategos of the 
( fxyrhynchite Nome. 

Since the officials have assembled and accused the bankers of the 
h.mks-of-exchange of having closed these through their unwillingness 
in accept the Divine Coin of the Emperors, it has become necessary 

II in t an injunction should be issued to all the owners of the banks to 
open these and to accept and change all coin except what is plainly 
spurious and counterfeit, and not to them only, but to all who engage 
in business transactions of any kind whatever, understanding that if 
ihry disobey this injunction they will encounter the penalties which 
in former years his Highness the Prefect ordained for their case. 
Signed by me. 

The coin was divine through bearing the image of the emperor. 
The money being refused was no doubt the silver issues of Alex- 
.mdreia which had become very debased. In such a situation the 
temptation for capable moneyers and casters to produce yet more 
debased coins would be strong. 

Official correspondence from Panopolis, dated 298-300, shows 
the governmental anxiety over the depreciation of the currency. 
There was much official buying of gold, and the authorities were 
concerned that the correct price should be paid for it. The terms 
used for spurious coins in the order of 260 are paratypos and 
k.ibdelos, badly-struck and adulterated. The first term is odd; for 
imperfectly struck coins seem to have been usually acceptable 
ihroughout antiquity; perhaps it here means merely counterfeit 
in general. The word sapros (used properly of things like bone, 
wood, fish), meaning rotten, appears in a papyrus about 150 of 
bronze coins: 

When you said as to the banker that he should have checked the bronze, 
we should have examined the rotten staters. I neglected the bronze, 
wondering as a man who’s trusted does. Yeti found them rotten and by 
your life and that of my children, I disposed of three. Being worthless, I 
sent the five to you. Let him swear they aren’t his and let him change 
them. 

Bronze, cbalkos, seems used of small change; silver, argyrion, is the 
usual word for money. To find bronze coins of small value 
counterfeited is strange. (We meet hiermarmene , fate, called sapros 
in a magic text.) 




59 


58 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Not only the authorities were interested in counterfeiting of all 
kinds. Such activities were sufficiently widespread and significant 
to find their reflection in religious and philosophic thought of a 
dissident kind. We meet a Gnostic image of the Counterfeiting 
Spirit as that which the Archons of Fatality put into a man at his 
creation to make him sin. That is, the Rulers of the Spheres (the 
planets) alloyed the original spirit (gold) with baser materials, 
which steadily increased in power, weakening the force of the 
pure element. The intruding spirit grew ever stronger in the 
body and contradicted the motions of the spirit. A Koptic passage 
compares its presence there to the copper which, mixed with 
silver, was used as an alloy in the piece of money that served to 
illustrate the saying: Render unto Caesar the things that are 
Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. After death the 
Counterfeiting Spirit bore witness against the soul of all the evils 
that it had drawn the latter into committing. Thus evil and good 
were conceived as a sort of alloy in the body’s mixture. The problem 
was to drive out the baser compounds and to release the precious 
metals, of which the soul, freed from the counterfeiting or 
adulterating forces, would be purely composed. 20 

Though we are not yet concerned with alchemic texts, we may 
here cite a letter addressed by the alchemist Zosimos, who 
flourished about 300, to his sister: 

Zosimos to Theosebeia, greeting: The whole Kingdom of Egypt 
subsists thanks to these Two Arts: that of timely and that of natural 
sands [alchemy carried out by empiric and mechanical systems, and 
alchemy that follows the formative methods of nature: sands = earths, 
minerals]. Indeed the art that is called divine—that is, the dogmatic 
art [working on general or theoretical principles as opposed to 
empiricism]—to which are devoted all those who give themselves up 
to the quest for all man-made products and noble techniques, I mean 
the four arts considered effective—this art was handed over only to 
the priests. 

As for the treatment of natural minerals, it was a royal monopoly, 
and so, if it happened that a priest or a man reputed skilful interpreted 
the sayings of the ancients or the lore inherited from his ancestors— 
even though he knew these matters and saw his knowledge free from 
hindrances—yet he did not practise. For he would have been punished. 

Just as the workers capable of striking royal money did not strike 
it on their own account—since they’d have been punished—so, under 
the Kings of Egypt, the smelting craftsmen, though they knew all 
about washing minerals and the series of operations, did not practise 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 

11 lor themselves. Far from that, it was precisely to prevent such activity 
dial lhey were organised in military fashion as workers for the royal 
treasuries. They had further individual chiefs, treasury-overseers, and 
arehistrategoi. In short, they were all sorts of tyrannous rules for 
smelting. In effect, according to an Egyptian law, it was even forbidden 

10 write on these matters and publish them abroad. 21 

The opposition of empiricism and theory we shall discuss later 
when we come to Zosimos’ treatises; what is relevant here is the 

11 me of the document, which accords very well with a period when 
alchemists were lumped together with forgers, and were being 
suppressed. We may note here that Zosimos links the tradition of 
secrecy with the need to escape persecution and prosecution. A 
variant text ends by saying the tyrannous rules applied not only to 
1 1 ic smelters, but to all goldminers. “If anyone was caught digging 
1 mine, by an Egyptian law he had to deliver up his product after 
depositing the account in writing.” The Egyptian kings to whom 
Zosimos refers cannot be the Roman emperors; he is probably 
thinking of the Ptolemaic kings. The account by Agatharkides 
(gi veil in Diodoros) of the goldmines in Nubia under the Ptolemies 
depicts work-conditions of desperate misery, in which death 
■ amc as a welcome release. Under the Romans the workers in 
mines and quarries were often condemned criminals; they were 
under military control, with a statio generally adjoining the 
miner’s camp. 22 

That alchemy and counterfeiting were closely entangled at this 
period is further suggested by the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri 
dealing with tinctures for imitating metals, pearls, precious stones 
and other such matters, and dated to the second half of the 3rd 
century. Recipes for counterfeiting gold and silver are included, 
with directions that show they were intended to deceive. 

\(InIteration of Gold. An equal part of misy and Sinopic red to an equal 
part of gold. Put the gold in a furnace and when it’s bright, add each 
of die other ingredients. Take out and let cool when the quantity of 
gold is doubled. (Leyden, recipe 17.) 

Making of Silver. Clean white soft tin 4 times, melt 6 parts of same 
with 1 mna of white Galatian copper. It becomes prime silver that will 
deceive even skilled workmen, who won’t suppose it made by such 
a treatment. (Stockholm, 3.) 

Another recipe. Add 6 parts purified tin and 7 parts Galatian copper 
lo 4 parts silver, and the resulting product will pass unnoticed for 
silver bullion. (Stockholm, 4.) 23 







60 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The word for adulteration is dolos : trick, cheat. Misy, mentioned 
by Dioskorides and Plinius, seems a mixture of basic iron and 
copper sulphates produced by a natural oxidation of pyrites; 
apparently used for the surface removal of copper from base 
gold and as a mordant in dyeing (chemical papyri), arsenical 
mixtures for whitening copper, in surface cleaning or coloration 
of metals, in yellow varnishes for such colourings , and in what 
was called “yellow sulphur” (alchemic MSS). 

Julius Firmicus Maternus, astrologer of the 4th century, is the 
first known writer to use the term Alchemy. “If it is the House of 
Mercury, it gives Astronomy. That ofVenus announces Songs and 
Joy. That of Mars, Arms . . . That of Jupiter, the Divine Cult and 
the Knowledge of Laws. That of Saturn, the Science of Alchemy.” 
The prefix al- had no doubt been added by some later copyist, who 
knew the Arabic term; and we may assume that Firmicus wrote 
Chemia or Chjmia. Saturn was master of lead; and according to 
Olympiodoros, Osiris was both a synonym for lead and his tomb 
the emblem of Chemia. (For that tomb was the place of resurrec¬ 
tion as well as of death.) Firmicus, we noted, drawing it seems on 
Petosiris-Nechepso, cited the aphorism of nature rejoicing in 
nature, and so on. 24 

Proklos in the 5 th century was well aware of alchemy. In a 
passage setting out the Neoplatonic creed of the vital unity of 
matter and the kosmos, he begins by commenting on the attempts 
of astronomers to explain by mechanical means the irregular 
motions of the heavens as made up of regular and circular ones, 
and on those of the calendar-makers to imitate nature which had 
created everything before they started with their calculations. He 
goes on: 

And there are those claiming to make gold out of the mixture of 
certain species, while nature makes the one species of gold before the 
mixture of those species of which they speak. And everywhere we 
see the same attitude: that the human soul hunts after nature with 
skilful devices to find how things are generated. As for the stars, there 
is a purpose in this, which, not by chance, has given men success in 
their inquiries into the regular motions of the bodies moving in circles; 
for this, they assert, is fitting to divine bodies. 25 

Proklos is so filled with a sense of wholeness that he cannot quite 
stomach any analytic or decomposing processes, even if their aim 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 6l 

Li Id rediscover or reaffirm the unitary nature of process. However, 
bis position is pervaded by astrologic and alchemic attitudes: 

( Mild and silver and every metal, like other substances, grow in the 
c.irtli under the influence of the celestial gods and their emanations. 
<inld is attributed to the Sun, silver to the Moon, lead to Kronos, 
in id iron to Ares. These metals have their origin in heaven, but exist 
in die earth and not on those that emit these emanations. For nothing 
involved in matter is admitted in heaven. And though all substances 
originate from all the gods, there is yet in everything another specific 
prevalence, some belonging to Kronos, others to the Sun. The men 
given to meditating on these matters compare these and attribute to 
them various faculties. These substances as a result are not the private 
property of gods, but are common property; for they originate in all 
ol them, but do not reside in them. The active powers do not need 
them; but they are compounded on earth through the influence 
emanating from the gods. 26 

I lc is explaining why in Plato’s Republic the city-guardians do not 
consider gold and silver, or any other things whatever, as their 
own private property. His terms are simultaneously astrologic 
and alchemic. Again, in commenting on the meaning of Plato’s 
words about the invisible rivets that weld together the particles of 
m:i l ter, he employs various technical terms such as are to be found 
in the Leyden and Stockholm papyri; and further he cites what 
seems an alchemic aphorism: “All things are dissolved by fire and 
glued together by water.” 27 Perhaps another such aphorism under¬ 
lies his remark, “The better cause always conquers the lesser”. 28 

The passage above about gold and silver seeks to express both 

I lie unity of the metals and their differentiation. The techniques 
and calculations of astrology had done a great deal to enable men 

II > grasp the concept of a vast complexity of interacting influences 
upon and inside a single situation, which continued to possess its 
(>wn living unity. Thus Ptolemaios in his Tetrabiblos, arguing that 
knowlege is obtainable by astronomical means, and discussing 
how far such knowledge can go, remarks: 

A very few considerations would make it clear to all that a certain 
power, emanating from the eternal aitherial sustance, is dispersed 
through and permeates the whole region about the earth, which is 
everywhere subject to change, since, of the primary sublunar elements, 
lire and air are encompassed and changed by the motions of the aither, 
and in turn encompass and change everything else, earth and water 
and the planets and animals therein. 29 


6z ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


Then after discussing the various effects of sun and moon on the 
earth and its creatures, he adds: “Then, too, their aspects relative 
to one another, by the meeting and mingling of their dispensations, 
bring about many and motley changes.” Dispensations is 
diadoseis, which gives a strong effect of the interpenetration of the 
distributed influences; and motley is poikilai, which suggests 
many-coloured, dappled, as well as the more abstract “various”. 30 
Ptolemaios goes on to consider how “there are circumstances of 
no small importance and no trifling character, which merge to¬ 
gether to cause the special qualities of those who are born. For 
differences of seed exert a very great influence on the special 
traits of the genus.” This leads him to discuss the differences 
caused in individual lives by the places where they are born, the 
ways of rearing and the customs there, and so on. On such lines 
as these astrology helped men to think concretely at once of both 
multiplicity and unity in processes, and played its part in b rin g in g 
about the alchemic disciplines. 

Aineias of Gaza was a Neoplatonist who wrote a dialogue on the 
immortality of the soul and the body’s resurrection. Flourishing 
in the late jth century, he seems connected with a highly educated 
monastic circle who were the first to cite from the corpus of works 
attributed to Dionysios the Areopagite; and he finally went over 
to Christianity. 31 In his dialogue, after arguing that the body, 
formed by the union of the four elements, reproduced them by its 
decomposition, he went to discuss the permanence of Form as 
compared with Matter. 



7. Smiths from the region of Laodikeia 


6 3 

The form subsists while the matter undergoes change; for the latter is 
made so as to take all qualities. Let it be a bronze statue of Achilleus. 
Suppose it destroyed and its pieces reduced to small fragments. If 
now an artisan gathers the fragments up, purifies them, and by a 
singular science transforms them into gold, which he again gives the 
figure of Achilleus, there will be gold instead of bronze in it. But it 
will still be Achilleus. Thus behaves the matter of the perishable and 
corruptible body, which by the creative art becomes pure and 
beautiful. 32 

Aineias is giving his version of the eternal Platonic Ideas, using a 
((immon theme (the broken-down, reconstituted state) in his own 
way; he is the first we know to introduce overtly the alchemic 
transformation in this connection. He goes on with a direct 
description of alchemists. 

The changing of matter for the better has nothing incredible in it. 
Thus it is that those learned in the art of matter take silver and tin, 
make their externals disappear, colour and change the matter into 
excellent gold.-With divided sand and soluble natron, glass is made: 
that is, a new and shining thing. 33 

I Ic speaks in pure alchemic idiom; for the practitioners saw their 
work, as we have noted, as a process of death and resurrection. 
Thus Stephanos says, “We must strip matter of its qualities to 
a 1 rive at perfection; for the aim of philosophy [i.e. alchemy] is the 
dissolution of bodies and the separation of the soul from the 
body.” 34 

I t is likely indeed that the Christians had already, some time 
before, taken over' alchemic imagery to express the death and 
rebirth of the Martyr. In the account of the death of Polykarpos 
of Smyrna (who died in 156) we read: 

When Polykarp had launched this Amen heavenward in completing 
lus prayer, the pyre-men lighted the fire. A great flame burst out, 
sparkling. Then we saw a miracle; and we, to whom was granted the 
sight, have been spared so as to relate to others what happened. The 
lire, taking the shape of a vault, like a ship’s sail bellied out by the wind, 
surrounded the martyr’s body in a circle. And the martyr was in the 
midst, not like a body being burned, but like a loaf being baked, or 
like gold and silver that is purified in the furnace. As for us, indeed, 
1 here was wafted a delicious perfume, as strong as that of incense or 
some other of the precious aromatics. 35 





MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


64 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Eusebios reproduced the narrative, omitting the bread but 
keeping the gold and silver; Syriac and Koptic versions follow 
his History. The ultimate source of the furnace-image was no doubt 
Daniel III; but the form here taken shows alchemic influence. 36 
The bread-image brings in the idea of the leaven, of fermentation. 
A transitional stage to the version of Aineias appears when the 
Fathers of the Church describe, in the case of Polykarpos and 
other martyrs, the resurrected body as a statue of noble metal, 
purified in the fire. 37 We may note also that Gregory of Nazianzen 
speaks of the lead of the flesh”—that is, of the unregenerate 
condition that needs to be transformed into heavenly gold. 38 

Such imagery was indeed very real and heartening to the 
devoted Christian in the days before the Church’s triumph, since 
he was liable to be persecuted and burned to death. For him the 
Fire had a dual meaning. It represented an ordeal. “The apostle 
has promised that a like thing will happen to us,” cried Ambrose, 
dealing with fables of Phoenix and Eagle, “when he said: Fire 
will prove what is the work of each.” He refers to a plunge into 
the spirit (fire) and water; the fire here is also that which at the 
world’s end will flood the earth with destroying flames, proving, 
purifying, dividing. 39 It, however, is also a redeeming and 
transforming force. 

Then when the clay of our flesh, as has already been said, has been 
cooked by the fire into a vessel \testa\ so that this flesh, previously 
pressed down to the earth by a heavy burden, may with the aid of 
angels fly away towards heaven after receiving the wings of spiritual 
grace, it has here eternity as a genuine and appeasing pledge for its 
safety. 40 

In this set of confused metaphors we meet the imagery of the 
pottery-kiln. By baptism the worshipper is baked into a pot, 
hardened by fire into a new birth. 

Several Byzantine historians—Kedrenos, John Malalas, Theo- 
phanes—tell of an alchemist Johannes Isthmeos who gave the 
emperor Anastasios a horse-bit of massive gold. “You won’t 
deceive me like the others,” said the emperor and clapped 
Johannes into the fortress of Petra, where he died. We assume 
that Johannes failed to produce any more gold. His tale gives the 
impression that claimants to the power of gold-transmutation 
were now fairly common and that they did not hide their claims. 41 


65 

|ohannes Philoponos, Byzantine scientist of the 6th century, 
was much interested in the relation of colours to various fuels. 42 
In discussing the relation of soul and body, and denying that it 
1.111 lie defined as juxtaposition, mixture, or intertwining (as with 
ropes), he states, “The soul neither merges with the body into 
i me substance as in the case of fusion, e.g. in drugs and chemicals, 
nor is it completely lacking in affinity and reladonship to it, as is 
die case of supramundane powers.” 43 

John of Damas (Damascus) in the first half of the 8th century 
used alchemy in a poem, the Dioptra, a dialogue between body 
.mil soul. The body argues that man’s state cannot possibly be 
brought near to God’s, and the soul replies: 

It’s just the same as when lead and gold are exiled far apart, a distance 
yiiwns between their homes, a vastness separates them. A certain 
i raftsman then might come and seek to show his skill, the operation 
11I bis art and his scientific lore; he’d take the lead and melt it down 
Inside his fiery furnace, he’d show the lead transformed to gold, the 
best in quality. All this is marvellous indeed, it’s strange beyond belief, 
that what was never gold before should turn to actual gold, what wasn’t 
gold should turn to gold, though different at the start. O great display 
• if excellence! O great display of reason. 44 

but by this time alchemists were no longer shrouded in such 
mystery or worked in such a secluded way, even if they remained 
strange figures of esoteric lore. The alchemist Olympiodoros 
seems certainly the historian of the 5 th century; and by the time of 
(Icorge Synkellos, chronicler of the later 8th century, the tradition 
has come largely into the open. George knows the main authors 
well, recounts the initiation of Demokritos by Ostanes, Maria the 
|cwess, and Pammenes. He cites his four books on Gold, Silver, 
Stones, and Purple, in almost the same terms as the alchemist 
Synesios. (Scaliger thought he was drawing on Panodoros, whom 
be certainly knew and praised.) 45 Synkellos also cited passages 
from the alchemists Zosimos and Synesios; and some of his 
citations have come down in their place in the alchemic 
manuscripts. 

Then about 850 Ibn-Abi-Yakub-An-Nadim in his encyclopedia, 
Kbitab-al-Fibrist, gave a list of writers on alchemy: Hermes has 
pride of place. 

Works of Hermes on Magic, Books of Hermes to his Son on Magic, 
book of fusing Gold, Book addressed to Thoth, on Magic etc. Ostanes 



MORE HISTORICAL REFERENCES 


66 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of Alexandria: he has written a thousand dissertations on Secrets and 
Enigmas etc. Zosimos has followed the same way as Ostanes. He has 
written the Keys of Magic, which include a large number of books and 
treatises. 

The names of the philosophers who have occupied themselves with 
magic include Hermes, Agathodaimon, Onatos, Pythagorean Philo¬ 
sopher of Crete, Plato, Zosimos, Demokritos, Ostanes, Herakles [or 
Heraklios], Maria, Stephanos, Chymes, Alexandras, Archelaos, the 
Christian Priest Ares. 46 

Then follow several names we cannot l i n k with known Greek 
alchemists. We are also given a list of book titles, which the author 
cites as having himself seen or found recorded in a reliable source. 
Among unknown works, we find many that are extant: Dioskoros 
on Magic, the works of Maria the Kopt, Alexandras on the Stone, 
the Book of the Red Stone, Dioskoros in reply to Petasios, the 
Book of Stephanos, the Great Book of Maria, the Book of 
Eugenios, the Book of Queen Kleopatra, the Book of Sergios 
addressed to the Bishop of Edessa, the Great Book of Ares (or 
Horos), the Little Book of Ares, the Book of the Nazarean, the 
Book of Demokritos, the Book of Zosimos addressed to All the 
Sages, the Book of the Monk Sergios on Magic, the Dissertation 
of Pelagios, and so on. 

When we review the evidence collected in these two chapters, we 
must admit that it is very fragmentary and oblique till we come to 
the 8th century. Yet in view of the strange way in which Alchemy, 
as the first stage of chemical science, arose and developed, we 
could hardly expect otherwise. It is only with the first century a.d., 
with the references by Columella, Plinius and Seneca to Bolos- 
Demokritos, and with the comments of Dioskorides on lead and 
mercury, that we reach anything like sure ground. Even then the 
aspects of alchemy that have reached the more open fields of 
culture are slight and obscure. There is however the account of 
the emperor Gaius’ attempt and failure to produce gold, to back 
up the other references. 

Some authorities have set Bolos-Demokritos only a generation 
or two before Plinius and Columella. But this seems unlikely. With 
such a deeply-buried lore as that of alchemy we must allow a much 
longer time for the ideas to percolate upwards from the level of 
secret practices. We have seen how ideas from cooking and 
brewing impacted on Greek theoretical thinking in the 4th 


67 

trulury b.c., especially through the study of botany in the 
Arislotelean school. The Karnak text of the 2nd century shows 
111.11 such ideas were sufficiently current to affect the cosmological 
humiliations of the Egyptian priests. We can then reasonably 
11 uijca lure that the nexus of ideas from metallurgy, brewing, 
dyeing, perfume-making and so on, which lies behind alchemy, 

I i.i< 11 icon active for some time in Alexandreia and had been moving 
towards its final synthesis. Bolos of Mendes seems the thinker 
icponsible for the first definite step, which brought together a 
number of lores and concepts in a coherent form. The 2nd century 
'tciiis the best period in which to place him. By the 1st century 
a i>. alchemical ideas in a limited scope were beginning to be 
mi ire widely known. By the 3rd century they were at their phase 
nl most powerful expansion, linked with a large number of 
lii 1 ulred developments in the religious and philosophic spheres. 

These dates are supported by what seems an early alchemic 
lex I, a papyrus written in a round uncial hand of the late 1st or 
early 2nd century a.d. It is fragmentary, but some treatment of 
1,ilver seems the main theme. We meet something moonlit, the 
washing of a stypteria “which the dyers use”, processes of rubbing 
and mixing “until the silver” shows a colour which may be of 
gi .Id, something described as pure. If the missing word of which 
we have ou{s) was in fact chrysou, we could be sure that the text was 
dt hemic. (What seems the s of ous was added later on the papyrus.) 
A 1 typleria was an astringent substance containing alum or ferrous 
t. ide: here it is doubtless alum. It the papyrus is indeed alchemic 

I I shows that recipes were being written out in a town like 
1 >xyrhynchos round about A.D. 100. 

I n any event this text will serve us for the turn into the con- 
idcration of the alchemic material itself; and first we must 
Inquire into the enigmatic name of the new science. 






THE NAME ALCHEMY 


4 

The Name Alchemy 

The name Alchemy has come down to us through the Arabs, 
to whom we owe the prefix al-. But exactly what the chemia-itt 
meant is not so easy to make out. There were two forms in Greek 
for the name of the art: chemeia and chymia. But as they were at 
first used for long only in alchemic treatises, of which we have no 
early texts, with no clear references in non-alchemic works, we 
have no proof as to which was the earlier form. 

Let us start with chymia. This word may be connected with 
cheein, to pour or let flow, from which came the verb choaneuein, 
to cast in a mould, to smelt, and also the term chyma, “that which 
is poured out or flows, a fluid.” We find this usage for chyma in 
Aristotle. Alkiphron later has chyma niphados, snowflake; and the 
astronomer Ptolemaios speaks of the four chymata or humours: the 
hot and the moist, the dry and the cold. Already in the 3rd 
century b.c. we find chyma used for ingot or bar, in an inscription 
from Oropos; in the 2nd century, in another at Delos dealing with 
gold. The term thus intrudes from the metallurgical world as 
commonly-used for a cast or smelted product; and this fact gives 
it a great claim to underlie the name of Alchemy. 1 Chymia would 
mean the art of casting or alloying metals. It seems to occur in a 
passage cited by George Synkellos from Zosimos; our Greek 
manuscript gives chemeia, but the Syriac version has khumia. 
Again, in Olympiodoros we meet chymia, though Johannes of 
Antioch gives chemeia, as do the Souida and other late sources. 2 The 
claims of chymia are again supported by the name given to an 
alchemist. Chymes; but here again we come up against variants, 
Chymes, Chemas, Cheimas. Still, it seems plausible that at least by 
the time of Zosimos a general term chymia had developed out of 
the metallurgical use of chyma to describe, not only alloying, but 
also the transformation of metals. We may assume a long period 
when the term was evolving underground. 


69 

Earlier than any of the verbs the term choanos is attested, 

11 leaning a hollow or melting-pot into which metal is poured. In 
1 1 ic Iliad, in the forge of Hephaistos: 

'I'he bellows, twenty in all, blew on the choanoi sending out a ready 
blast of every force to help him along as he laboured hard and again 
in whatever way Hephaistos might wish his work go on. And over the 
Inc he put stubborn bronze, and tin, and precious gold and silver; 
and then he set a great anvil on the block and grasped a massive 
hammer in one hand, the tongs in the other. 

And Hesiod writes of the earth-convulsions during the battle of 
Zeus with Typhon ( Typhoios ): 

A great part of the earth was scorched by the terrible vapour and 
melted as tin melts, heated by men’s art in well-bored choanoi, or as 
iron, hardest of things, is softened by glowing fire in mountain-glens 
11 nd melts in divine earth through Hephaistos’ strength. Even so the 
earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. 

I ''.utretoi, well-bored, probably refers to the spouts of the pots or 
i rucibles, meaning “well-channelled”. Choanos itself means 
''pouring-pot or channel”, for a cognate form choane was used for 
"lunnel”, and the two terms chyma and choanos show how deep- 

II Kited and ancient was the root cheein in the craft-jargon of miners 
and smelters. 

Chymia (chymeia ) belongs in fact to a series that refer to an 
activity or occupation. This, mageia refers to the profession of the 
mages as magician; taricheia to that of the embalmer, taricheutes\ 
metalleia to that of the miner, metalleutes (mineral-quester). Chymia 
is the work of the metallurgist or alloyer; and we would expect a 
related noun for the man who carried it out—probably chymeutes. 
but we have no record of such a word, though the adjective 
chymeutikos occurs in the alchemist Zosimos. Indeed metallurgical 
and mining terms were slow in getting into literary Greek, though 
1 here must have been many of them in common usage. 8 In the 
( )dyssey, metallaein means simply to search or inquire in general. By 
1 lie time of Plato metalleuein was used for mining (though we find 
only the passive in his writings); the verb was used actively by 
Philon the Mechanic (3rd or 2nd century b.c.). Plato also used 
metalleia for the quest after minerals or underground channels, the 
plural of ?netalleion for minerals, and metalleus for the man seeking 
minerals or water. The searcher is metalleutes in Strabon. 



7° ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 


7 1 


Herodotos knew metallon for mine or quarry; but it is not till the 
i st or 2nd century a.d. that we find texts in which it means 
mineral. However, in such technological matters the literary 
evidence can be highly deceptive. We have to look to inscriptions 
for chyma as ingot. When metalloidsis was first used for the trans¬ 
formative process of metallurgy, it is hard to say. The word means 
“an alteration into another state”. By chance it sounds as if it 
incorporates metallon ; and no doubt because the idea of trans¬ 
formation had become so imbedded in the very idea of metals and 
metallurgy, Plinius made the baseless derivation of metallon irommef 
allon , as if it also held a meaning of changing-into-something-else. 4 

But how then did the other term, chemeia or chemia, come about? 
The form may have occurred as a chance variant of a non-literary 
word used for centuries by workers in and around the metal¬ 
lurgical field. But it has been suggested that it arose through 
contamination with chem, Egyptian for “black”, or that chemeia 
had nothing at all to do with the terms chyma-chymia but was born 
solely out of chem. Egypt was called the Land of the Black or 
Fertile Soil, especially with reference to the Delta where much silt 
was deposited. The Egyptian word was Kmt, and the hiero¬ 
glyphic sign has been taken to represent a charcoal-heap, a 
crocodile’s tail, or a piece of fish-skin; in Koptic we find two 
forms, Saharic and Boharic, pronounced Kime and Khime. The 
adjective, however, was expressed by a periphrasis, Vmn-Kime, 
“People of the Black”. 5 

Philologically then there is not much to be said for the 
interpretation of Chemeia as the Black or Egyptian Art. But that 
does not disprove some sort of linkage between Khime-Kmt and 
Chymia in the minds of alchemical practitioners. We continually 
find that the ancients were liable to take similarities in sound as 
expressive of some secret or deeply-significant connection; and 
if it is true that much of early alchemic developments was carried 
on by groups in Egypt, someone or other may have noted a 
certain echo of sound in Chytnia and Khime and considered it to be 
mysteriously suggestive. Ploutarch tells us: 

The Ox kept at Heliopolis, which they call Mnevis [sacred to Osiris 
and thought by some to be the sire of the Apis], is black and receives 
secondary honours to those paid to Apis. Also, Egypt, which is of a 
black soil in the highest degree as well as the black part of the eye, 
they call Chemia and compare it to a heart. For it is hot and moist . . , 6 


( lea fly then people were generally aware, in Graeco-Egyptian 
11 ri les, of the way the term “black” was used in Egypt, with its 
various points of reference. We may note also an odd symbolic 
n | ulvalence of Black and Gold in Greek thought. Early in July 
,140, when the Samian war was being fought, the Proxenos of the 
Athenians in Chios invited the poet Ios of that island to meet the 
dramatist Sophokles, who had been sent as one of the strategoi of 
i lie year to collect contingents from Chios and Lesbos. A school¬ 
master from Eretria, present at the party, questioned the propriety 
of a line by Phrynichos which Sophokles quoted: “There shines 
on his crimson cheeks the light of love.” Sophokles in reply 
pointed out that colours were used symbolically in verse and art. 

I'bus, a poet wrote of Goldenhaired Apollo, but “if a painter had 
made the god’s locks golden instead of black, the picture would 
not be so good.” 7 So Apollo was shown with black hair, though 
i 11 ritual or symbolic terms it was golden. 

I n the Kore Kosmou, Kamephis transmits the gnosis to Isis, “when 
lie has .gratified her with the gift of the Perfect Black,” and in a 
magical papyrus we read, “I conjure you. Lady Isis, whom the 
Agathos Daimon [the Good Spirit] agreed should rule in 
die Perfect Black.” 8 There seems to be some connection of the 
I 'effect Black with revelation or magical activity; and indeed the 
i c rm Teleion Melas has been taken to refer to alchemy as the Black 
Art or Black Ritual—it could be translated as “the Black Rite”. 
The geographical explanation indeed seems the more likely, since 
in these late days Isis was looked on as the Lady of Egypt. 9 But 
we need not all the same rule out an emotional identification of 
Egypt, the Black Land, as the source of all ancient lores and 
magics, with those lores and magics themselves—and in particular, 
here, with the alchemic art. In an alchemic text, presented as a 
revelation of Isis to Horos, we are told how the goddess went to 
I lormanouthi (the temple of Horos at Edfu) to receive the 
science of Alchemy. She encounters an angel, then a superior 
one, Amnael, to whom she gives herself. Amnael tells her the 
secret lore on condition she hands it on only to her son. 10 
Kamephis, whom we shall see later as Kneph-Agathodaimon, can 
also be seen here as Amnael. So we may say that he gave Isis both 
Chemia the Blackland and Chemia the Art. 11 

There is yet another point. The desire to identify chymia-chettiia 
t he art and kmt-chemia the land may have derived from a wish to 
assert the Egyptian origin of alchemy against other claimants. 



73 


72 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

From the texts we can make out two schools, that of the Egyptians 
and that of the Jews. There was rivalry between the two nationali¬ 
ties here, as in the hermetic or gnostic worlds. A magical text 
states: “It is this very Book that Hermes plagiarised when he 
named the Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice in his sacred book The 
Wing.” Hermes-Thoth, exemplar of the Egyptian school, is 
accused of stealing from The Book of Moses . 12 Stephanos writes, 
differentiating the Egyptian techniques, which he links with 
Hermes and which he approves: 

There are certain of the things that suffer restoration. For he [Hermes] 
says, that the rainwater [?] of the true art is burned and is fugitive in 
fire, but suffers from the fire, and, crossing over, it is not melted. And 
[in] the roasting of the projections according to the Egyptian, which 
he uses, the drug is not melted in the tincture. So has said the critical 
[kritikos] teacher and philosopher and guide: just as a sling passing by 
someone may wound him [that which is gone is a result of the strength 
of the thrower], so then is gone the wound of the man standing in the 
way. But he who has it, has it whoever he is, if indeed it truly is gone. 
So also the ash itself runs and tinges indelibly and makes indelible the 
cause of the tincture, or the drug is dissolved into its kindred fire and 
air, as being fugitive and burnt up in the bellies of its parents. 

He thus stresses projection as the Egyptian method. 

The melters of gold . . . employ projections according to the methods 
of the Egyptian: which matters, corrupted, the Etesian Stone itself 
operates when well managed, as also do we. And do not wonder if 
from many stones and various species the stone, being one, is born 
and is so spoken of. Do you not see that those who cultivate the Muse 
and Things of Beauty, as they make animals and glasses and dyes, 
make a single stone from many species? Especially they make it from 
lead and that which has become bronze-like, so that they may not lack 
a carving. And as such useful stones make all such things, from many 
stones they make one stone, which they call the Etesian Stone. 

National differences also in spells and spellbinders were 
recognised. A prayer-and-exorcism by Gregorios asks for 
protection against any ill-bringer, “whether a slave or a freeman, 
a wizard or a witch, a Persian man or woman, a Chaldean man or 
woman, a Jew or Jewess, an Egyptian man or woman, in short 
anyone whatever.” 13 The existence of the two alchemic schools is 
declared in A Genuine Discourse by Sophe \Kheops'\ the Egyptian and 
by the God the Hebrews the Lord of Towers Sabaoth: “For there are 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 

Two Sciences and Two Wisdoms: that of the Egyptians and that 
of the Hebrews.” 14 Further in the works of Maria we meet a curt 
claim to a Jewish monopoly of the innermost secrets of the art. 
“Do not take it in your hands. It is the Igneous Remedy. It is 
mortal.” To this general prohibition she adds the direct order to 
non-Jews: “Do not touch it with your hands. You are not of the 
race of Abraham. You are not of our race.” 15 Zosimos says that 
i he Jews gained knowledge of the sacred art by fraud and then 
revealed it. 16 Perhaps behind Maria’s remarks lies a general fear of 
touching gold as something with too great an innate power, which 
might blast as well as aid. Only the Jews, she insists, can safely 
ignore the taboo. We find such a taboo urged in the life of the 
Kopt Saint Senuti in the 6th century. 17 Further the Letter of 
Ilemokritos to Leukippos states that the writer is going to set out in 
ordinary Greek the secrets he has found in the books of Persian 
prophets: works with a series of riddles, which had long past been 
c< mfided to the Phoinikians by “the ancestors and kings of divine 
Egypt”, The writer is seeking to show the priority of the 
Egyptians over the Phoinikians. The same national rivalry 
appears in a tale told by Rufinus that Persian fire-worshippers 
asserted the superiority of the element fire over all the gods of 
I <',gypt. So a priest of Kanopos took a perforated vessel of the sort 
used for filtering water, stopped up the pores with wax, and set it 
on fire; but the fire was soon put out by water issuing from the 
holes as the wax melted. After that, Kanopos was represented 
with a waterjar-shaped body, a short neck, and very small feet. 18 

However, kmt as “black” is not the only possible Egyptian 
s< rnree of chemia. It has been suggested that the term derives from 
t he Book of Wisdom, the ancient kmj.f , often cited by scribes 
from about 2,000 b.c. onwards. Zosimos mistook this work for 
the Satire of Trades, in which the toilsome lot of the smith and 
other craftsmen is described and compared with the easier life of 
1 he scribe. Chemeu, it is argued, could be derived without difficulty 
from kmj.f-, and Zosimos and other alchemists linked this chemeu 
by using the Greek word chymeutes, metalfounders, for chemists. 19 
Such a line of argument is highly farfetched and does not carry 
much conviction. However, one advocate of the claims of kmj.f 
has argued that the word is derived from the verb km, meaning 
“to complete, bring to a close, execute (the preparation of oint¬ 
ments), finish off (metalwork)”. 20 Flence the title of the Wisdom 
Book implied that the work gave the advice needed for completing 




74 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

or fulfilling what the gods had already made inherent or poten¬ 
tial in human actions and material objects in the process of 
creating them. Km would thus in one sense mean the repetition of 
the original creation of the world—expressing human creativity 
as derived from, and imitating, the divine activity. Such an idea 
was Egyptian enough: that men merely worked out, repeated, 
completed what had been planned and made inherent in things 
from the beginning, and that, in doing so, they needed guidance. 

The derivation of Kimija from this ancient Egyptian verb is certainly 
more logical than deriving it from the other root km, which means 
Black and has been used to form the expression (Coptic) KHME or 
XHMI meaning Egypt from the black fertile soil of the Nile valley. 
The use of this km. Black, for Chemeia might imply that there was a 
contrast between the “Black Art”, Egyptian chemistry, and a “White 
Art”, such as is often mentioned in the Middle Ages when alchemy 
was proscribed as an occult occupation, but which to my knowledge 
does not exist in Greek chemical documents of an early period. 
(Forbes). 21 

But, as we have seen, there is no need to postulate a White Art 
against the Black; the contrast is between Black (Egyptian) and 
Jewish. It is possible however that some Egyptian derivation 
from km in the sense of fulfilment did enter into chemeia , on the 
lines of the fanciful etymological identifications already mentioned. 
If so, it is of interest to note that we have a duplication in the term 
Teleion Melas. For then melas would be a translation of km (black) 
while teleion expresses in Greek exactly the meaning of km (fulfil¬ 
ment). But this is no doubt only an odd accident—not the only 
oddity that turns up in this trail of possible derivations of the 
word Alchemy. (Teleion, incidentally, could be used to define the 
full inundation of Egyptian soil.) 22 

No sooner however do we decide that the term chemeia, as 
developed by the time of Zosimos, perhaps combined a Greek 
metallurgical term with various Egyptian overtones as the 
result of the broodings of Graeco-Egyptian practitioners, than we 
find that there is an altogether new claimant for the original 
basis of Alchemy. We must not forget that we do not know if 
chemeia or chymia was the early term. If it was chymia, we must look 
also at chymos, which is Greek for plantjuice and is etymologically 
linked with cheein like chjmia. Chymos extended its meaning to 
include animal juices or humours. Indeed it is hard to say if the 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 75 



H. Lakopian relief from Chrysapha, about 550-30 b.c. : man with 
kantharos, squeezing juice; wife holding pomegranate; boy with cock 
and egg; girl with flower (lotus or pomegranate). Also, terracotta of 
Kore rising up out of ahalf a pomegranate. 

plant or the animal usage was earlier. Aristotle and Theophratos 
both use the term of plants; but Aristotle also applies it to animals 
and further uses it for juice in general. He also uses it to mean 
“taste.” 23 Chymos is in fact cognate with chylos, which in its turn 
meant plantjuice, was applied also to animals, and further defined 
a decoction, gruel or barleywater. It too was used for “taste.” As 
chyle it was employed by Galen for the juice or fluid produced by 
(lie digestion of food. Chyma and chymos could indeed be confused, 
as we see when Ptolemaios describes the four humours as chymata, 
not chymoi , 24 There thus seems a close link between fused metal 
and plantjuice in the Greek terms derived from cheein-, a link 
between metallurgical and digestive processes. We noted above 
1 he way in which cooking, digestive, and fermentative processes 
forced their way into the thought of the 4th century b.c. Clarifica¬ 
tion in the use of the various words from cheein — chymos, chylos, 
chyma —may well have occurred at that time, as the first stage to the 
emergence of the idea of chemical action in general: chymia or 
chemeia. 

Chymia may perhaps have referred primarily to the production 
















THE NAME ALCHEMY 


77 


76 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of juices used in drugs, in magic, and in digestion, and to the 
processes that these juices brought about. The juices in question 
would be those that had, or were thought to have, a transformative 
action on human bodies and on material objects. We may seem 
here wandering far from the realm of metallurgy; but we must 
recall that juices or other plant-products had a wide usage in 
magic apart from medical recipes and the like. They were used in 
metallurgy. A traveller in 1862 in Cypros met the Turkish pasha of 
Nikosia, “who spoke eloquently over flowers and at times over 
Kimiya, a herb having the virtue of converting metals into gold”. 25 
This juice was the active principle in an alchemical process, and it 
strangely had the very name of our quest. The Persian poet 
Firdausi had a couplet: 

Not one of the Dead by the Herb was resurrected. 

Poorly they all by the Kimiya were effected. 

It is seen then that Kimiya as a resurrecting and transmuting herb 
had a long history in the regions of Arab influences. Not that the 
magic herb was restricted to those regions. In an account of 
Indian superstitions we are told how a master (Bhagatjee or 
devotee): 

ordered a large half-anna copper coin (which was current in 1893 
and was the size of a rupee or of a florin) to be brought, and taking 
one out of my pocket it was produced at once. Then he directed a 
Huqqa claypipe to be made ready. I also sent for some pure tobacco 
of my own. Bhagatjee handed over to me a little of some fresh herb 
saying that it was to be mixed with the tobacco and the copper coin, 
which was in my hand, was to be placed on top of it. When the pipe 
was ready (with its charcoal glowing) I was ordered to start smoking 
which I continued to do for a little while when he asked me to tip 
over the clay pipe, and having done so I found the copper coin had 
instantaneously turned into gold. 28 

We are not told the name of this herb; but the name of that used in 
the Arab world is indeed striking. Was it transferred to the herb 
after the introduction of Greek alchemy? or does it give us the 
clue to some earlier connection of metallurgical magic of which 
we know nothing? In any event its existence makes us pause 
before rejecting chymos-chylos as a candidate for the origin of the 
term chymia. The notion of the resurrecting and transmuting herb 
or herb juice clearly links with that of the herb or water-of-life 


which plays a very important part in folklore and myth, which in 
l he Near East is found in the epic of Gilgamesh, and which 
reappears among the alchemists as the divine water. 

The transmuting or resurrecting drug certainly existed in 
early Greek rites and myths. Poppy and pomegranate, for example, 
seem to have been importantly used in rituals going back to 
Minoan-Mykenean days. Associated with the Earthmother, they 
no doubt played their part in death-birth ordeals and initiations. 
Mekone, where Prometheus met and cheated the gods in the 
allocation of the parts of sacrifices, seems to mean Poppyland. In 
Asia Minor the production of opium went on into the Roman 
period in a big way. Coins of several towns show the poppy. 
I’rymnessos (the nearest ancient town to Afiom Kara Hissar, 
Opium Black Fortress, where is a chief modern centre of opium 
production) struck a design of two ears of corn and poppy; 
Synnada and Beudos, close by, had a similar design or one of 
corn-ear and poppy-head side by side. The Synnada coins are of 
the last century b.c. ; those of Beudos Vetus, of Hadrian. A coin 
of Ankyra, minted under Philip, shows the city-goddess holding 
in her left-hand a “pomegranate” in a scene closed in by cypress- 
trees: the “pomegranate” may well be a poppy-capsule ripe for 
slitting. 27 

The word papon or papa seems to mean poppy in Anatolian. It 
occurs on several altars: thymelai or incense-altars of papon. One 
dedicatory altar with a relief of a ripe poppy-capsule is described 
in the inscription as a Hermes; it had a saucer-like hollow on the 
top where the dedicator (? a priest Diomedes) burned poppy- 
opium. (The local folk said that rainwater collected there cured 
sick people.) Coins of Colonia Antiocheia show the Tyche of the 
town holding in her right hand a lustral branch turned down¬ 
wards or pouring the contents of a horn-of-plenty on to an altar. 
The altar is a thymele papon, and what she pours is opium, the chief 
product of the territory and the source of its wealth. It is associated 
with Dikaiosyme and her scales, as the goddess of fair dealing. The 
word Papai occurs alone on one side of a large sepulchral altar at 
Piribeyli, on a pass over Emir Dagh. At Hierapolis we find an 
inscription that tells how a council of the official of a guild of 
purple-dyers carried out the burning of papa “on the customary 
day” once a year, using the interest on 3,000 denars to meet 
expenses. (If they neglected the proper investment and caused a 
loss, the remaining sum was to pass to the ergasia thremmatike, the 



78 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

cattle-raising society—an odd injunction: it has been suggested 
that thremma here has the sense of threptos and the society was one 
for looking after orphans.) We are not told what deity’s festival 
was involved. At Abassos, near Amorion, a funeral ceremony was 
to be celebrated at the Mithrakana; and we may note the associa¬ 
tion of the poppy-offering and sepulchral altars, of the Tyche of 
Ankyra with a cypress-grove (? cemetery). Asa drug of communion 
with the gods it was perhaps thought to aid the dead in their 
spirit-journey, in their afterlife. 28 Prometheus seems to contact 
the gods by entering Poppyland: by entering an opium-trance. 
As a drug of initiation and death-birth, opium had the value of an 
elixir transforming the condition of its user. On an Apulian vase 
we see a male and female worshipper approaching an aedicula with 
a large poppy growing out of a tomb: an epiphany of the dead man 
in plant form. On a higher level are shown beings in a godlike 
state. 29 

On a grave-relief of 550-530 b.c. from Chrysapha in Lakonia we 
see two dead persons (man and wife) in heroised or divinised form. 
The man holds a big kantharos and squeezes some juice into it 
through a long piece of cloth; the woman holds a pomegranate 
(source of the juice) and helps in the operation of straining or 
filtering. Below, and in front of their throne, stand a boy and a 
girl: the boy holding a cock and an egg, the girl a flower (lotus or 
pomegranate?) and a pomegranate. 30 We certainly have here a 
representation of rebirth through fruitjuice. The fruit of the 
pomegranate is a rich red; in the Balkans it is still considered that 
the red flowers stimulate blood. 31 It was similarly venerated in 
China, though there it was only one among various immortalising 
agents. We may note also that a herb pro?)2etheion was said to grow 
on the Caucasus from the bloodlike ichor of Prometheus; it was 
golden and caused an earthquake when plucked; Medeia used it to 
give Iason invincible or deathless power. And Prometheus was 
closely connected with the cults, with the mystery-initiations, of 
various fire-crafts such as metallurgy and pottery. 32 

That the prometheion itself had some part in such initiations is 
suggested by the role of a herb in a myth of the Kabeiric Mysteries. 
Clement of Alexandreia tells us: 

If you would like a vision of the Orgies \orgia\ secret rites or mysteries] 
of the Korybantes, here is the story. 

Two of the Korybantes slew a third one, their brother. They covered 
the corpse’s head with a purple cloak, then wreathed and buried it. 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 79 

niter carrying it on a brazen shield to the skirts of Mt. Olympos. So 
wc see what the mysteries are: in a word, murders and burials. 

The priests of these mysteries, whom those interested call Presidents 
i >1 the Rites of the Princes [the Korybantes or Kabeiroi], add a portent 
to the dismal tale. They forbade wild-celery, selinon, root and all, to be 
set on the table; for they actually believe that selinon grows out of 
11 ic blood that flowed from the murdered brother. 

It’s a similar custom, of course, that is observed by the women 
celebrating the Thesmophoria. They are careful not to eat any 
pomegranate seeds that fall to the ground, being of opinion that 
pomegranates spring from the Blood of Dionysos. 

The Korybantes are called by the name Kabeiroi, which tells us all 
about the Kabiric rite. For this very pair of fratricides got possession 
of the chest in which the genitals of Dionysos were deposited, and 
look it off to Tyrrhenia [Tuscany], traders in such glorious wares. 
There they stayed, being exiles, and communicated their precious 
lessons of piety, the genitals, and the chests to Tyrrhenoi for purposes 
of worship. For this reason, not unnaturally, some want to call 
I )ionysos Attis, because he was castrated. 83 

We see here the pomegranate as blood-fruit linked with selinon. 
'That the murder-rite was metallurgical is shown by Zenobios: 
“The brothers put their third brother to death. They bury him 
under a mountain. His body changes to iron.” 34 The myth was 
thus one of the birth of iron; and selinon had some close link with 
i he iron’s myth and craft-ritual. Selinon was an immortalising or 
resurrecting herb; for it was used to crown the victors of the 
Isthmian and Nemean Games, and chaplets of it were hung on 
tombs. It was also a synonym for the vagina and thus was an 
emblem for the Earthmother’s genitals as well as of the murdered 
brother. The Kabeiric connection with metallurgy is further 
shown by the representation of a Kabeiros with a hammer, e.g. on 
coins of Thessalonika, where he also holds a rhyton. We also find 
a Kabeiros with hammer on the back of a Mithraic stone; on the 
front Mithras slays the Bull. 35 An odd survival of one of the 
Daktyls (another cult-fraternity or mythical reflection of such a 
metallurgical group) occurs in a late magical text where we find 
“Damnamanaios and Adonaios and Sabaoth;” Damnamanaios is a 
variant of Damnameneus, one of the Idian Daktyls associated 
with the Great Mother. Damnameneus, associated with Nikaro- 
plex, appears on magical gems. 36 

Attempts have been made to find direct alchemic ideas in the 
Kabeiric deities and myths. The Kabeiric triad has been thus 


80 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

analysed: Axiokersos stands for the Sun (Apollo-Helios), Axio- 
kersa for the moon, Axieros as the completed Hermes, the fused 
alchemic Hermes—with the fourth figure Kasmilos as symbol of 
the Hermetic essence, of harmony and gradation. But this sort of 
interpretation makes the early mystery-ideas far too definite; it 
mistakes a necessary pre-alchemic phase of simpler fire-magic and 
of intuitive images of union and change as the highly sophisti¬ 
cated product that could only emerge after craft-mysteries had 
united with various philosophic schemes and systems. 37 A 
pharmakon was used in the Mysteries of Eleusis. The sjnthema or 
password, expressing the novice’s fit state for initiation, began, 
“I have fasted, I have drunk the kjkeon .” The fast seems to have 
lasted nine days. Kjkeon merely means “a mixed and (if necessary) 
stirred drink”, but from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter we learn 
that it consisted of barley-groats and water mingled with “tender 
chleron .” Ovid adds the detail that the barley was toasted before 
being crushed into groats. Such groats, in water, produce malt 
which may taste sweet and become alcoholic after short fermenta¬ 
tion. Arnobius, speaking of the rite, says, “I drank out,” that is, 
emptied the potion. No doubt the small pots carried by the men in 
the procession held a precise measure. Chleron or blechon, used in a 
tender (fresh) state, was some variety of pennyroyal. This plant 
produces the peppermint-tea drunk widely still in Central Europe; 
in North Africa the green leaves are used to make a mild stimulant. 
The main ingredient of the poley-oil from the plant, mentha 
pulegium , is an aromatic substance pulegone, which in large doses 
can bring about delirium, loss of consciousness, spasms. A plant 
of the same family in the Sierra Mazateca, Mexico, has the effect of 
a phantastmim , 38 

It is thus likely that the kjkeon , imbibed on top of a long and 
thorough fast, would produce an extreme responsiveness in 
which the imagery and rites of the mystery would have a pro¬ 
foundly exciting effect, making the experience seem indeed a 
divine revelation. Blechon-glechon suggests a carminative or anti- 
spasmodic, but that does not remove it far from a narcotic. Pindar 
uses the adjective for the rivers of the underworld from which 
darkness flows out: “The sluggish rivers of the dusky night,” and 
Quintos Smyrnaios speaks of the “the sluggish gift of sleep”. In 
Aristophanes’ Peace, Hermes recommends a Kjkeon with Mint to 
Trygaios who is to wed Opora (Fruit-abundance) and fears that 
such a bride will make him sick. Herakleitos, asked by the 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 


8l 


rebellious Ephesians for advice, took a cup of cold water, 
sprinkled barley in, stirred it with a branch of the herb, then 
drank it down. Hipponax, a tumultuous character, cried out for a 
whole bushelful of barley to make a kjkeon and combat his 
ponerie , his bad (moral) state. These three last examples suggest 
strongly that chleron was thought to have a pacifying effect, a 
t ranquillisation of the sort that we noted as effective for the 
heightened reception of the messages and symbols of the 
mysteries. 39 

Glechon gained an immense reputation among the later botanists. 
They recommended it for severe thirst, fainting, headaches, 
coughs, colics, renal troubles, indigestion, tertiary fever, nervous 
maladies, liver-affections, womb-disorders, stings of poisonous 
creatures, miscarriages. The Romans called it a panacea, omni- 
morbia. How far this high esteem went back we do not know. 
The term omnimorbia suggests something of an elixir that protected 
against all the ills of the body; and this suits well enough with the 
herb’s position in the mysteries, its link with the mother- 
goddess. 40 

We can now return to the pomegranate. Its connection with 
Demeter and Kore seems certainly to point back to a period 
before Demeter was a grain-goddess, to Minoan-Mykenean 
limes. The archaic cult-image of Athena on the Athenian Akro- 
polis held a pomegranate in the right hand; Polykleitos put a 
pomegranate into the hand of his Hera at Argo, and Pausanias 
remarks that he may not tell the reason. Near the great sanctuary 
of Hera at Paestum large numbers of terracotta pomegranates 
have been found. Trails then from Demeter, Hera and Athena all 
lead back to an ancient goddess of earth and under-earth. 41 Kore 
herself, though not at Eleusis, is shown with the pomegranate. 
The close link with the mystery-mother appears in the taboo 
against eating pomegranates or apples at certain feasts in Eleusis 
and Athens: at the Mysteries and at the Haloa (a winter-festival 
for women in honour of Demeter, Kore, and Dionysos, which was 
characterised by wine-drinking, obscenities, and veneration of 
genital symbols). At the Thesmophoria, another woman’s 
festival held soon after the Great Mysteries, in which joy alternated 
with mourning, the women ate nothing but pomegranates, at 
least on one fast day; and they were forbidden to touch the seeds 
that fell to the earth. 42 

The pomegranate was not a fertility symbol (as appears in some 







THE NAME ALCHEMY 


82 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

par ts of modern Greece). It represents blood, the blood of murder 
and of the broken maidenhead. Clement says that the reason why 
the women could not pick up the seeds was because the tree had 
sprung from the drops of Dionysos’ blood. Another legend tells 
how the tree sprang from the grave of Menoikeus at the gates of 
Thebes, where he killed himself to save the city. We are also told 
that a pomegranate tree grew from the grave of the Theban 
brothers, Eteokles and Polyneikes, who killed each other and 
one of whom died for the city like Menoikeus. Pausanias states: 

On the tomb of Menoikeus grows a pomegranate-tree. If you break 
through the outer part of the ripe fruit, you will then find the inside 
like blood. This tree is still flourishing. The Thebans assert they were 
the first men among whom the vine grew . . . 4S 

There was also a connection between the pomegranate and the 
death of Attis. Initiates in the mysteries of Kybele and Attis were 
forbidden to eat the fruit; the priests of Attis bore pomegranates 
in their hands, as did their statues, or wore pomegranate-wreaths. 
Nana (another name for the Great Goddess) ate a pomegranate 
and conceived Attis; and the fruit was the pledge of immortality 
for the initiates. Agdistis (a bisexual or hermaphroditic form of 
the same Goddess) was castrated in her sacred legend; the tree 
sprang from her flowing blood. Here the female genitals with 
their menstruation are imagined as castrated male-genitals. The 
name of the tree in Boiotia and elsewhere was side. Side in myth 
was the wife of the hunter Orion and went on an underworld- 
journey; we also find her as a virgin who killed herself on her 
mother’s grave to escape her father who sought to rape her— 
from her blood grew the tree. In an Orphic version Kore was 
raped by her father in snake-form. (The name Side was given to 
several cities: there we see Side as the fostering Mother.) 44 

In the passage cited above from Pausanias there was a direct 
transition from pomegranate to vine; and we have seen how the 
pomegranate was linked with Dionysos. Rhoio, the personified 
pomegranate, was daughter of Staphylos, the Grape (at least on 
Delos and Euboia); she bore Anios, who fathered Oino, Spermo, 
Elais, Wine-maid, Seed-maid, Oil-maid. 46 

We are thus brought back to the Kabeiroi with their selinon as 
the product of a mystery-murder, connected with both Dionysos 
and pomegranates. The whole complex we have examined makes 
more than likely that the craft-fraternities linked with the Great 


83 

Mother, Kabeiric, Korybantic, Daktylic, took over her plant- 
magic of death-birth and used it in their craft-rituals and pro¬ 
cesses to ensure the secure movement through critical moments of 
change, especially in metallurgy. 

The theme of plant-magic is a vast one. Still, here we may find 
space for some examples from the book of Martianus Capella on 
1 lie Marriage of Mercurius and Philologia. We hear of herbs used 
for apotheosis or immortality. One recipe is attributed to Demo- 
kritos of Abdera; Plinius cites a book of his on magic herbs. To 
save Philologia from being burned up in the fire of the celestial 
spheres, she is rubbed with an unguent, in the composition of 
which is a wonderful herb that seems the Hundred-headed Plant 
known to Plinius. This plant the latter connects with the Mages 
and the Pythagoreans; out of it were made a talisman, a love- 
phylactery, an electuary of beauty. Its use in Martianus Capella 
shows that it could protect against fire and thus live in it; a 
metallurgical link seems possible. 46 

Another passage describing how Philologia is immortalised and 
raised to the level of her divine husband also brings in a herb. 

When the goddess saw that she had drunk the cup of immortality, so 
ns to teach her in some sort by the symbol [aenigma] of a fillet that she 
was leaving earth for heaven and that she had become immortal, she 
crowned the virgin with a certain meadow-herb that bears the name 
.of . . . , while counselling her to reject all that which, as yet mortal, 
she had attached to herself as defence against the power from above; 
for, said she, there lay the inferior marks of a decayed and mortal 
essence. 47 

The name of the herb is not sure. It has been taken as aei^oon 
(overliving), but the MSS give lei^os, leukos, leukos —in the last case 
with a gloss “a white herb like some lily”. We may then take the 
name to be leukos or leukas (white) and link the herb with that 
called Candida by Plinius. The interpolator of Dioskorides calls it 
gorgoneion-, and Damaskios says the root is like “the maiden whose 
head is covered with snaky hair”. 48 From Psellos we learn that 
1 he plant grew mostly under earth, but that it popped up to watch 
if a girl mated nearby. The interpolator of Dioskorides adds the 
synonyms of hundred-headed and moly. The talismanic moly in 
I lomer was black-rooted and milky-flowered; but the variety 
known to Theophrastos and Dioskorides was yellow-flowered. 49 
The name leukos suggests the promontory Leukas where Sappho 





84 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

was said to have leapt to her death. In the Pythagorean basilica at 
the Porte Maggiore in Rome where Sappho’s ritual-leap of 
death-rebirth is depicted, a Victory stands above holding out a 
wreath and palm; and there is also in the basilica a winged Orante 
with a flower in each hand—the shape suggests a thistleflower. 50 

Plants and juices appear in alchemic texts, mostly in reference 
to the dyeing and colouring of materials. Thus, saffron seems 
used in a yellow dye-liquor for staining metal, which would later 
be lacquered. (Donne in his 8th Elegie wrote, “And like vile lying 
stones in saffroned tinne,” and Van Helmont in 1618 described 
the Philosopher’s Stone as “of colour, such as is the Saffron in its 
powder, yet weighty, and shining like unto powdered Floss”.) 51 
Plinius said the best variety of saffron was that of the crocus of 
Kilikia; and Apollonios of Rhodes compared the prometheion 
with this flower. 52 Among the juices applied to the surface of 
polished metal, beside that of the Kilikian krokos, was that of 
grapes, together with elydrion, a yellow dye-stuff. 53 “Make a wash 
as usual. Dye the silver out of petals till the colour pleases. If the 
petal is bronzen, all the better.” Sometimes krokos may represent 
a mineral; we may compare crocus martis , ferric oxide. Pseudo- 
Demokritos remarks, “Saffron has the same action as copper.” 
Anagallis, generally translated as pimpernel, seems cited by 
Demokritos for a yellow dye. Its character for dye-uses is con¬ 
firmed by its appearance among other materials in a work by 
Moses. Demokritos also mentions Pontic rhubarb, rha , as a 
material for producing dye-liquor. The root in fact has a deep 
yellow colour through its chrysarobin. (Synesios was puzzled by 
this passage, thinking that Demokritos intended an analogy 
between the river Rha flowing into the Pontic Sea and the 
liquefaction of a solid.) 54 A recipe from the Stockholm chemical 
papyrus is of interest as using both mercury and poppy-extract: 

To make silver: purchase coals such as coppersmiths use and steep 
them one day in vinegar. Then take an ounce of copper, fix it well 
with alum, and melt in this condition. Then take 8 ounces of mercury 
and empty it into poppy-extract. Take also i ounce of silver, and having 
incorporated these ingredients together, melt. (Recipe 8). 

Incense and resin (called opos, juice) appear in a recipe for auto¬ 
matic fire to be used in warfare. The text, which cannot be 
earlier than 550 a.d., is given in a manuscript of Julius 
Africanus: 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 85 

Automatic fire is made up of equal parts of native sulphur, rocksalt, 

1 license, thunderbolt stone of pyrites, ground in a black mortar in the 
noon-sun, and mixed with equal parts of the juice of the black sycamore 
and liquid asphalt of Zakynthos into a greasy paste. Then some quick¬ 
lime is added. The mass must be stirred at noon with care and the face 
kept protected, as the composition easily enflames. It must be put in 
bronze boxes with tight covers, protected from the sun’s rays till 
wanted. If the engines of the enemy are to be burned, they are smeared 
with it in the evening, and when the sun rises they’ll be burned. 55 

The idea of the Elixir is not as strong in Graeco-Roman alchemy 
as it is in Arab and Western medieval developments. But it is 
present and turns up now and then: for example, “Good prepara- 
lion and completion of the Created Thing and of the Work and 
hong Duration of Life.” 56 

'There is thus no reason why the use of certain plant-juices in 
metallurgical craft-magic might not have given the name to 
alchemy; but we have no evidence on the philological side for the 
early phases of this development. In Arabic, kimiya was used both 
lor a substance and for an art. But as it came to be used mainly for 
the latter, the synonym iksir was kept for the substance: hence our 
elixir from el iksir. In Greek the substance was chymos , with chymia 
apparently an abstract formation from it. But there is no sign of 
the word chymos having been used for a transformative agent; in 
alchemy that role was played by the divine water, mercury, and 
so on. Despite the evidence for magical herbs or juices in craft- 
ritual, we are then far from being convinced that chymos-chymia 
gives us the sequence leading to the term alchemy. 

The situation is further complicated by the intrusion of China 
into the problem. There the words Huan-Tan and Chin-I were 
used for alchemy. Chin -1 or Jin-Yi has been translated “goldfluid, 
goldjuice, gold-sperm”, which brings it into line with chymos 
rather than chyma. The ILie-sien Yuan (probably written by some 
alchemist between a.d. 200-420) tells a tale of how Master Ma 
Ming got from the ancient Master An Ch’i the recipe for the 
medicine jin-yi , which he compounded on Mt Hua-yin. However, 
not wanting to ascend to heaven, he took a half-dose and became 
an earthly immortal. The poet Shen Yo (441-513) sang: “I want to 
get a tablet with the jin-yi recipe, which will inform me how to 
grow wings.” And the T’ang emperors gave the name Jin-Yi 
to the audience hall in their main palace The pronunciation of 










87 


86 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of jin-yi in T’ang times would be kPm-iak\ and it is also claimed 
that Chin-I in Southern China would be pronounced Kim-Iyah or 
Kem-Iyah, the I in lyah meaning fresh plant]uice as well as fluid; 
and that therefore the Chinese Chin-I or Jin-Yi is the origin of the 
Arabic Kimiyah. Similarly it is claimed the el iksir comes from a 
Chinese phrase pronounced iak-ts’i’t in T’ang times—now yi-j^h', 
this phrase denoted the substance of a fluid secretion. 57 

What are we to make of all this ? There is scant evidence for a 
metallurgical type of alchemy in early China, despite the great 
importance of the bronze industry. The notion of an elixir 
however does seem to go well back into the pre-Christian age. 
When we consider the abundance of evidence for metallurgical 
alchemy in the Hellenistic world, in an area reaching from 
Mesopotamia to Egypt, and when we consider how essential for 
the maturing of alchemic theory was the background of Greek 
philosophy and mystery-religion, it is incredible that the system 
should have been imported from China via India and the pre- 
Islamic Arabs. Chymos-chyma , with or without its Egyptian 
associations and fusions, lies firmly in the bed of the ancient 
Greek language; and it is hard to see what can disturb its claim to 
have provided the basis from which the chemeia-chymia of Zosimos 
came (about a.d. 300). To suppose that a similarly-sounding 
Chinese term, with exactly the same meaning, came into the 
Greek-Egyptian spere via Indians and early Arabs is to enter a 


9. Travelling merchants in China: three T’ang figurines showing 

Semitic, Persian, and Western types 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 

philological madhouse. There is no space or need here to discuss 
1 1 ic early relations of China and the Iranian-Mesopotamian area. 

Ihii one example may be cited. About 1,000 b.c. horn-rhytons 
were being turned out by Iranian craftsmen; a doe-headed one 
appears on a Sassanid silver dish; a Chinese stone-relief of the 6th 
i nitury a.d. shows a horn-rhyton of the Iranian type being used. 
Trade-relations along the steppe-lands or via South-East Asia 
certainly have an indefinitely ancient history. 

Not that it is irrelevant for us to explore Indian and Iranian 
iullure for plant-lores. Those lores shed light on the general 
i >si kg round of alchemic origins. The Indian Buddhist Avatamska 
Sutra (dated 2nd to 4th century a.d.) states, “There exists a 
1 1 at aka juice or essence. One liang of this solution can transform 
.1 1 housand Hangs of bronze into pure gold.” The Mahaprajna- 
I'nramitashastra of Nagarjuna (translated into Chinese in the 4th 
icnlury) counts among the siddhi or miraculous powers the 

I nmsmutation of “stone into gold and gold into stone”. The 
(Hinge can be brought about by herbs or by yoga. The 
Mnbaprajnaparamitopadesha (translated into Chinese in the early 
iill century) says, “By means of drugs and incantations one can 
(lunge bronze into gold. By a skilful use of drugs, silver may be 
tiansformed into gold and gold into silver. By spiritual strength 
nun can change clay or stone into gold.” 58 In the myth of Indra’s 
dismemberment the divine body, intoxicated by an excess of 

II >ma, began to “flow out”, giving birth to every creature, plant, 
and metal. “From his navel the lifebreath flowed out and became 
lead, not iron, not silver; from his seed his form flowed out and 
became gold.” 69 

Albcruni in the nth century stated that the Hindus “have a 
la irnce similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them. They 
call it Rasayana. It means the art which is restricted to certain 
1 >pr rations, drugs, compounds, and medicines, most of which are 
1 a ken from Plants. Its principles restored the health of those who 
were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age.” A 
writer on Cutch in 1839 said that all the folk there “believe in the 
possibility of obtaining eternal youth and unwasting riches by 
means of the Waters-of-Life (which corresponds with the Persian 
iii m Abe-Hayaf) and the Philosopher’s Stone (Hajre Mukurran, a 
substance best developed by the Muslim alchemists) and many 
Indian works contain grave treatises on the best means of 
necking them.” 60 We are told that originally “the term was 





88 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


THE NAME ALCHEMY 


Ayushyani, or the securing of long life and health, which occurs in 
the Atharva-Veda and was converted later into Kasayana which is 
practically equivalent to alchemy. Even in the Atharva-Veda gold 
is regarded as the elixir-of-life, and thus [that work] can be said to 
be the first book of Knowledge of medicine and alchemy in 
ancient India.” 61 Kasayana seems at the outset a herbal drug or 
elixir; it appears as such in the epic Mahabhurata. Later it came to 
mean mercury or a mercurial substance, then alchemy as a whole. 
We may thus say in general that in the earlier Indian phases we 
find elixirs and herbal substances believed to own immortalising 
powers; the aspect of transmutation of metals may come in later 
through the Arabs—though there may well have been in India 
from the first centuries of metallurgical activity some sort of 
primitive alchemy. Much the same picture seems to exist in 
China, where the main emphasis is also on the elixir. 62 

Indian and Iranian ideas and myths were closely connected. It 
is enough for us here to note that fact without entering into the 
question of which influenced which, and in what way. We are 
concerned with the general way in which the Iranian-Indian 
complex lay behind the alchemic world-outlook in Graeco-Roman 
days. In Persia the primordial man, Gayomart, murdered by the 
corruptor, “allowed his seed to flow over the earth”—just as 
Indra did. As his body was composed of metals, the seven basic 
kinds thus flowed out. 63 We are also told that at his death eight 
minerals came from his limbs: gold, silver, iron, brass, tin, lead, 
quicksilver, and diamond. “Gold, in virtue of its perfection, 
issued from actual life and from the seed.” 64 The diamond there 
seems intrusive. From Gayomart’s seed, purified by the heaven’s 
rotation, was born the first human couple in the form of a rhubarb- 
plant. 65 Gold and the human essence were thus closely linked. 

In Persia the haoma- plant played much the same role as soma in 
India. It was an elixir, with a stock epithet: “from whom death 
flees”. The haoma rite was the central liturgical act of Zoroastrian¬ 
ism. The sacrifice was twice performed. At its first preparation it 
was accompanied by the offering of sacred bread, which was 
ritually consumed. The Haoma Yasht was recited: hymns in 
praise of the divine plant. The priests alone drank the sacred 
liquid. Then came the profession of faith acknowledging Ahura- 
Mazda as the Good Lord. After three most sacred prayers came 
the second preparation of haoma , its consecration and consump¬ 
tion, with the laity now invited to share. The sacrifice of the plant 


89 

was an act of communion. The plant itself was identified with the 
Son of God, who was bruised and mangled in the mortar so that 
(lie lifegiving fluid from his body might give new strength to the 
worshipper. (Haoma seems to have been a plant like our rhubarb, 
which grows to this day in the Iranian mountains. 66 We have 
noted the use of rhubarb with its deep yellow roots in alchemy, 
where it had value as a dye giving a golden effect and was thus 
considered as owning transmutative powers.) The way in which 
mankind and the plant were identified in the processes of juice- 
production was exactly paralleled by the way in which mankind 
and the metals were identified in the alchemic processes, as we 
shall see when we come to the visions of Zosimos. 

11 is clear then that ideas of the elixir entered into the myths and 
images of metallurgical transmutation in Greece as well as 
elsewhere; but without more definite etymological evidence it 
would be rash to deprive chemeia-chjmia from chymos rather than 
chyma. It is best to suppose that at the early stages there was no 
very clear differentiation between juice-extraction and smelting or 
alloying. That is, all the processes were felt to have deep-going 
analogies which made them in the last resort expressions of a 
iransmutative process. That was how chymos , chylos, and chyma all 
emerged from the root shown in cheein, “to pour out”. In later 
stages the notion of the unity in the processes weakened, but was 
never obliterated. Ideas and imagery from plant-magic flowed in 
on those from metallurgical craft-magic, and vice versa. Probably 
1 be metallurgical chyma dominated in the formation of the general 
term chemeia-chymia for chemical activity, plus influences from the 
I '.gyptian km. That seems as far as we can go in unravelling this 
difficult etymological knot—the very difficulty of which, however, 
enables us to penetrate into the complex origins of alchemic ideas 
and practices. 




DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 


9 1 


I'.pibechios, Pelagios, Agathodaimon, the emperor Heraklios, Theo- 
phrastos, Archelaos, Petasios, Klaudianos, Anon, Menos, Panseris, 
Sergios. These are the Master everywhere famed and oecumenical, 
llie new Commentators on Plato and Aristode. The Places where the 
divine work is accomplished are Egypt, Thrace [? Byzantion], Alex¬ 
andria, Cypros, and the Temple of Memphis. 3 


Demokritos and Bolos of Mendes 


Now we come to the alchemists themselves. If we look at the 
manuscripts, we find them lavish with names, but with no 
historical reliability. 

Exposition of the Rules of Goldmaking, beginning with the names of 
the exponents. Hermes Trismegistos wrote first on the Great Mystery. 
He was followed by Johannes, Archpriest of Tuthia in Euagia and 
the sanctuaries there found. Demokritos, the celebrated philosopher of 
Abdera, spoke after them as well as the excellent prophets following. 
Then the very wise Zosimos is named. These are the oecumenical and 
famed philosophers, the commentators of the theories of Plato and 
Aristode. Olympiodoros and Stephanos, having made researches and 
discoveries, wrote great accounts of the goldmaking art. Such were 
the very wise books, the authority of which is going to guide us. 1 

Omitting Hermes and Johannes, this account is fairly sober. But 
we also get hasty fists: 

Names of the Philosophers of the Sacred Science and Art. These are: 
Moses, Demokritos, Synesios, Paseris, Pebichios, Xenokrates, Afri- 
kanos, Loukas, Diogenes, Hippasos, Stephanos, Chimes, the Christian, 
Maria, Petasios, Hermes, Theosebeia, Agathodamion, Theophilos, 
Isidoros, Thales, Herakleitos, Zosimos, Philaretes, Juliana, Sergios. 2 


The manuscript must date from long after the temple of Sarapis 
had been razed and that of Memphis also destroyed; but it 
repeats ancient traditions. To claim Plato and Aristotle as 
ancestors was not altogether untrue; for many aspects of the 
alchemic cosmogony went back to their work. In joining Hermes 
< >r Orpheus with famous Greek thinkers or poets (Hesiod, Aratos) 
die compilers were probably expressing a genuine confusion in 
part, in part seeking to raise the prestige of their art. Such 
agglomerations were not unusual at the time. The Sethean 
(inostics mingled Biblical themes with Orphic mysteries. Further, 
no one wanted to claim originality. The more one could shelter 
behind the great names, the safer one felt. Whereas apologists 
today seek to stress the new elements in the Christian dispensation, 
a writer like Eusebios in the 4th century a.d. goes out of his way 
lo insist that there is nothing new whatever in it: 

This must suffice as introduction to my story proper. It was necessary 
i 11 order to guard against any inclination to think of our Saviour and 
I ,otd, Jesus Christ, as novel, because of the date of his sojourn in the 
llcsh. But to prevent anyone from imagining that his teaching was 
cither new and strange, as being put together by a man of recent date, 
110 different from his fellows, let us now deal briefly with this point. . . 

Thus the practice of religion as communicated to us by Christ’s 
(caching is shown to be not modern and strange, but, in all conscience, 
primitive, unique, and true. 4 


Here Hermes is relegated low down in the fist and Moses is the 
great founder leading on to Demokritos, with famous early Greek 
thinkers like Thales and Herakleitos in the tale. In yet another 
fist Plato and Aristotle lead on to Hermes, Johannes and 
Demokritos. 

Plato and Aristode, Hermes, Johannes the Archpriest in divine 
Euagria, Demokritos, the great Zosimos, Olympiodoros, Stephanos 
the Philosopher, Sophar the Persian, Synesios, Dioskoros the priest 
of great Sarapis at Alexandreia, Ostanes and Komarios initiates of 

Egypt, Maria, Kleopatra, wife of King Ptolemaios [XII] Porphyrios, 


Wc cannot do better than begin our quest by considering the role 
of Demokritos in the alchemic tradition. There, what are called 
ihc works of Demokritos seem almost wholly the products of 
I !< >los of Mendes; but there could not have been such a use of a 
great philosopher’s name unless he was felt to have some close 
affinity with the alchemic worldview. We have already had some 
gjimpses of Bolos-Demokritos from the pages of Columella and 
I’linius; and at times in the stories that are told, and the 
attributions that are made, it is hard to be sure whether we are 
dealing with Bolos or the 5th-century philosopher. 


93 


92 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Today Demokritos is mainly recalled as the founder, with 
Leukippos, of the atomic theory. According to this theory all 
bodies are made of atoms, which are complete, indivisible, 
simple, eternally existent in empty space, but differing in form and 
magnitude, with proportional weight. All change comes through 
combinations or dissociations of atoms in a purely mechanical 
way. If we think we see a distant action, there in an intermediate 
medium transmitting it. Atoms are caught in a w hirling move¬ 
ment, which brings about their combinations. The soul is made of 
round tenuous atoms of the igneous kind; they keep on trying to 
escape, but breathing renews their number. Sensations imply a 
direct contact with objects or their emanadons. All this (apart 
from the role of breathing and the concept of ceaseless movement) 
seems very far from alchemy, which, perhaps on account of the 
difficulties of finding ways to weigh atoms, never made any attempt 
to apply or develop the atomic theory in dealing with its problems. 

But Demokritos was interested in much more than atoms. The 
works that he or his school wrote formed a sort of encyclopedia 
analogous to the collection of treatises under the name of Aris¬ 
totle. They were classified and gathered together by the 
grammarian and astrologer Thrasyllos under whom Tiberius 
studied at Rhodes and who accompanied his master to Rome. He 
is named in Juvenal’s sixth satire, just before Petosiris. Now only 
a few fragments of the collection survive. But we are told that its 
contents included works on ethics, natural science, mathematics, 
astronomy, music, poetry, rhythm and poetic beauty, Plomer, 
linguistics and grammar, medicine, agriculture, painting, myth¬ 
ology, history. Diogenes Laertes mentions works on the sap or 
juice of plants, as does Petronius; on stones, minerals, colours, 
metals, glass-tinting. Anecdotes describe Demokritos’ incredible 
diligence, and he is said to have died in poverty. Diogenes says 
that he was esteemed, not only for philosophy, “but because he 
had foretold some things that the events proved to be true,” and 
adds that he died at the age of 109. He was called the Smiling 
Philosopher, laughing at the follies of men; his aim was euthymia 
or peace of mind through abstinence and moderation. Plinius 
says, “Demokritos condemned Venus as the act by which one 
human being springs from another.” 6 

Legends seem to have gathered fairly soon around him, so that it 
is hard to say where the fantasies about the atomist end and begin 
to merge with the fantasies about the alchemist. He belonged to 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 

Abdera, an Ionian colony from Teos founded in the 5 th century 
11.c. But we also find him called a Milesian and his father’s name 
is variously spelt. He travelled widely and was thought to have 
reached even India and Aithiopia; he wrote of Babylon and 
Meroe . 6 Diodoros says that the Egyptians asserted that “Demo¬ 
kritos also [as well as Pythagoras] spent five years among them 
and was instructed in many matters relating to astrology.” 
Diogenes, perhaps basing himself on Antisthenes (almost a 
contemporary of Demokritos), says that he learned geometry 
from the priests of Egypt and visited Persia and the Red Sea. 
Thcophrastos mentions him as a man who had visited many 
countries; and according to Clement he declared that no man of 
bis age had made greater journeys or met more men distinguished 
in every kind of knowledge, mages and priests. Among the 
latter he cited the Egyptian geometers, arpedonaptai . 1 

It is certain then that he was an adventurous and striking 
( haracter; of the sort likely to attract legends; and presumably it 
was his interest in stones, minerals, colours, dyes, that in large 
part drew the alchemists to him. A citation by Theophrastos 
shows him interested in fire and colour. “Iron and other bodies 
a rc brighter when they contain more fire of higher tenuity, and 
arc redder when they contain little fire in a coarser state. Thus, 
redder bodies are less hot.” He seems to be establishing a relation 
be l ween colour and temperature . 8 Theophrastos himself was much 
( oncerned with metals, stones, plants, and perfumes; but he was 
never claimed by the alchemic tradition. 

Wc can read Demokritos’ bold and untrammelled character in 
various sayings of his which have come down and which seem 
authentic. 

Man must know that he is far removed from how things really are. 

A nd it will be clear that it is most difficult to know how each thing 
is in reality. 

As things stand, we perceive nothing that is reliable, but only 
what changes according to our constitution and to the onrushing or 
counteracting patterns. 

I alone know that I know nothing. 

The wrongdoer is more unfortunate than the man wronged. 

Culture is an adornment for the fortunate and a refuge for the 
unfortunate. 

To a wise man the whole earth is open; for the native land of a good 

•a 1111 is the whole earth. 












DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 


95 


94 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

Poverty under democracy is as much to be preferred to so-called 
prosperity under an autocracy as freedom to slavery. 

People are fools who hate life and yet wish to live through fear of 
Hades. 

One must not respect the opinion of other men more than one’s 
own; nor must one be more ready to do wrong if no one will know 
than if all will know. One must respect one’s own opinion most, and 
this must stand as the law of one’s soul, preventing one from doing 
anything improper. 

A year without feasts is like a long road without inns. 

Man is a universe in little. 

Nature and instruction are similar; for instruction transforms the 
man, and in transforming, creates his nature. 

Aristotle was outraged at the way in which Pythagoreans and 
Demokritos were obsessed with mathematical combinations or 
with “the concurrence and entanglement” of bodies. “They say 
there is always movement. But why and what this movement is 
they do not say, nor, if the world moves in this way or that, nor do 
they tell us the cause of it doing so.” 

Now let us look at some of the things that Plinius says about 
Demokritos, and find if we can distinguish legend from fact. Thus, 
we are told that Pythagoras, Empedokles, Demokritos, Plato, 
went overseas to learn the magian lores. 

Democritus expounded Apollobechis the Coptite [of Koptos] and 
Dardanus the Phoenician, entering the latter’s tomb to obtain his 
works and basing his own on his doctrines. That these were accepted 
by any human beings and transmitted by memory is the most extra¬ 
ordinary thing in history, so utterly do they lack credibility and decency 
that those who like the other works of Democritus deny that the 
magical books are his. But it is all to no purpose. It is certain that 
Democritus in particular distilled into men’s minds the sweets of 
magic. Another strange thing is that both the arts of medicine and 
magic flourished together, Democritus expounding magic in the same 
age as Hippocrates medicine. 9 

Loukian further colours the tradition of tomb-frequenting. In 
his Lie-Lover he writes on the subject of ghosts: 

“A very wonderful man that Demokritos,” said I, “the Abderite, who 
it seems was completely convinced that nothing of the sort can exist. 
He shut himself up in a tomb outside the gates and continually wrote 

and composed there night and day. Some of the young chaps, wanting 


to annoy and alarm him, dressed up like dead men in black robes and 
skull-patterned masks, encircled him, and danced round and round in 
quick time, leaping into the air. Yet he neither feared the travesty nor 
looked up at them at all, but as he wrote he said, ‘Stop your fooling!’ 
So firmly did he believe that souls are nothing after they have gone 
out of their bodies.” 10 

What lies behind these tales appears to be some experiments that 
I icmokritos made on what he called eidola : images (a term also used 
lor ghosts). Ploutarch tells us that like Epikouros he explained 
dreams as the result in general of eidola which were ceaselessly 
emitted by objects of all sorts, including living bodies, and which 
penetrated through the pores of the sleeper. Demokritos (though 
not Epikouros) considered that the eidola carried representations, 
emphaseis, of the mental activities, thoughts, characters, emotions 
of the person from whom they came. “And, thus charged, they 
have the effect of living agents. By their impact they communicate 
and transmit to the recipients the opinions, thoughts, and 
impulses of their senders, when they reach their goal with the 
images intact and undistorted.” Distortions or weakness of 
impact could arise through the weather, through frequency of 
emission, or through the initial velocity. “Those that spring out 
I r< >m persons in an excited and inflamed condition yield, owing to 
i heir high frequency and rapid transit, particularly vivid and 
significant representations.” 11 

ln this passage Ploutarch deals only with dreams; but Demo¬ 
kritos certainly thought that the eidola could impact on others than 
sleepers; for elsewhere Ploutarch mentions that he explained the 
evil-eye on the same principle. The sender used eidola charged 
with a hostile and harmful content. 12 So it seems that the emission 

eidola was a continuous process, which under certain conditions 
could assume a special strength and velocity. Apparently then 
1 Icmokritos went to tombs or deserted places to try out the effects 
o ieidola there on his mind and senses. Diogenes Laertes says: “He 
would train himself, asserts Antisthenes, by a variety of means to 
lest his sense-impressions by going at times into solitude and 
frequenting tombs.” 13 We see then that, though a consistent 
materialist, he was extremely interested in strange phenomena, 
in occult forces, which he believed had a physical or scientific 
explanation if enough was known about them. Probably indeed 
n was tins mixture of attitudes that drew the alchemists to him— 
.m ardent quest for definite explanations, and an open mind 




C)6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

towards forces of sympathy and antipathy, attraction and repul¬ 
sion, which acted at a distance and could not yet be explained: 
together with an omnivorous curiosity and persistence of research. 

The tales in Plinius and Loukian, it then appears, have a certain 
connection with the historical Demokritos; yet they contain 
legendary elements such as we shall find when we discuss 
Dardanos and Apollobechis. Why did such legends thicken 
round Demokritos? And what were the stages by which they 
arose? It is hardly enough to say that they were created after 
Demokritos has been taken over as a hero or a disguise by the 
alchemists. Plinius is completely convinced that the atomic 
philosopher was a thorough-going devotee of magian ideas and 
practices; and he is not so uncritical as to be thus taken in unless 
there had been a long accumulation of legendary confusions. No 
doubt the core of those confusions lay in the work of Bolos of 
Mendes. What then of this man, who took the name of Demo- 
kritean and also was either mistaken for Demokritos or else hid 
himself behind that philosopher’s name—in homage or in an 
alchemic system of secrecy? The Byzantine dictionary called the 
Souda tries to distinguish two men called Bolos, one a Pythagorean 
concerned with sympathies and antipathies, the other a Demo- 
kritean, who wrote on medicine and history. But this is unlikely. 
Columella seems to know only one Bolos; and Stephanos of 
Byzantion, dealing with Apsynthios, a town in Thrace, adds that 
Bolos the Demokritean cited Theophrastos’ Book of Plants for the 
statement that “the cattle in Pontos cropping a plant with the 
same name lack galls”. Columella says that Bolos wrote on 
sympathies and antipathies, and calls his books cheiroktnela. 14 
Vitruvius, dealing with methods of distinguishing silver mixed 
with gold, adduces Archimedes’ experiment with the displacement 
of water and Eratosthenes’ method for calculating twice the 
cubic content of Apollo’s altar at Delos. He speaks of the pleasure 
to be got from considering such inventions, and remarks that he 
cannot help admiring “the works of Demokritos on the Nature of 
Things and his Commentary entitled Cheirokmeta, wherein he 
sealed with a ring, on red wax, the accounts of those experiments 
he had tried out”. 15 Cheirokmeta , however, seems to mean 
artificial substances : that is the meaning we find for cheirokmetos 
in Aristotle—and so the attempt to link it with hand-sealing is an 
error. It seems indeed from the letter from Zosimos to his sister 
cited earlier that cheirokmeta had a special meaning for alchemists. 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 


97 


Zosimos calls his fellows “those who give themselves up to the 
i|uest for la cheirokmeta ”—metals produced by the art, not those 
just dug up from the earth. But we are still left with the problem 
whether both Demokritos and Bolos wrote works with this title, 
or whether Vitruvius is confounding Bolos with Demokritos. 16 

Now let us look at Plinius on the author of a book about plants, 
whom he considers Demokritos. This author he consistently links 
with the mages of Persia. In a section on Wonder-Plants, he says 
that he will start with the Magical. “They were first brought to 
i he notice of our part of the world by Pythagoras and Democritus, 
who followed the Magi as their authority.” He goes on about two 
plants that Democritus says congeal water, another used in 
fomentation against snakebite, and a root that catches fire at a 
distance like naphtha. 17 

That Democritus was the author of a book called Cheirokmeta is a well- 
uttcsted tradition. Yet in it this famous scientist, the keenest student 
next to Pythagoras of the Magi, has told us of far more marvellous 
phenomena. Thus, the plant aglaophotis [brightlight ? peony], which 
g< >t its name from men’s wonder at his magnificent colour, being native 
11 > the marble quarries of Arabia on the Persian side, is called marmaritis. 
The mages use it when they want to call up gods. 

The achaemenis is of an amber colour, leafless, found among the 
Taradastili of India; criminals, on drinking it in wine, confess all their 
misdeeds because they suffer tortures from divers phantoms of spirits 
that haunt them; Democritus also called it hippophobas since mares 
have an extreme aversion from it. 

Yheombroton [godfood] grows 30 schoeni [each about 5 miles] from 
the Choaspes, like a peacock in its hues and very finely-scented. He 
says the Persian kings take it in drink for all their bodily disorders as 
well as for instability of intellect and of the sense of justice (?); and 
that it is also called semnion [solemn, august] from the majesty of its 
power. 

I le also mentions another plant, the adamantis [unbreakable], native 
of Armenia and Cappadocia; if set near lions, they lie on their backs 
and wearily yawn. The reason for the name is that the plant cannot 
lie crushed. Ariana is named as home of the arianis, a fire-coloured 
plant; it is gathered when the sun is in the Lion and pieces of oil- 
ttoaked wood catch fire at its touch. The therionarca [beast-numbing], 
growing in Cappadocia and Mysia, makes all wild beasts turn torpid 
ho that they can’t be revived unless sprinkled with hyena-piss. The 
aethiopis grows in Meroe, so its other name is Merois. It has the leaf of 
a lettuce and is very good for dropsy if taken in honeywine. 
























99 


98 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The plants here cited do indeed show a strong Persian aspect, in 
their names, places of origin, and magical uses. Note how man y 
are connected with some sort of possession. The way in which 
names beginning with A and TH dominate suggest that he was 
glancing at the start of a work with the items alphabetically 
arranged. The aglaophotis, we may note, is a flower of the storm¬ 
raising and maddening series to which the prometbeion and the 
mandragora belonged. 18 Fire-elements appear in the inflammable 
root and in arianis. Plinius goes on, using indirect speech to make 
clear he is citing his author and taking no responsibility for the 
statements. 

The ophiusa [snakeplant] grows in Elephantine, also part of Ethiopia, 
a plant livid in colour and revolting to look at. Taken in drink, it 
causes such terrible visions of menacing serpents that fear of them 
drives men to suicide. So those guilty of sacrilege are forced to drink 
it. Palmwine is an antidote. The thalassaegle [seabright] is found along 
the river Indus and is so called from potamaugis [rivergleam]. Drunk, 
it makes men rave while weird visions beset their minds. Theangelis 
[godmessenger ?] grows on Mt. Lebanon in Syria, Mt. Dicte in Crete, 
and Babylon and Susa in Persia; the mages take it to drink so as to 
become divine. 

Gelotophyllis [laughterleaved] grows in Bactria and along the 
Borysthenes. Taken in myrrh and wine, it makes all sorts of phantoms 
haunt the drinker, provoking laughter that keeps on till pinenut 
kernels are taken with pepper and honey in palmwine. Hestiateris 
[hearthplant] is Persian, so named from its promotion of goodfellow- 
ship, as it makes the company gay; it is also called protomedia [Median 
headship] from its use to gain the highest position at Court; casignete 
[sisterplant] as it grows only in companionship with its own species 
and not with any other plants. Helianthes [sunflower] is the name of a 
plant with myrtle-like leaves, growing in the district of Themiscyra 
and on the mountains along the Cilician coast. A decoction of it in 
lionfat, with saffron and palmwine added, is used as ointment by the 
mages and by the Persian king to give the body a pleasing look; 
hence its name heliocallis [sunbeauty]. 

He gives the name of hermesias to an agent for procreating handsome 
and good children. This isn’t a plant but a compound of ground 
kernels of pinenuts with honey, myrrh, saffron, and palmwine, and 
with the later addition of theombroton and milk. He prescribes a draught 
of it for those about to become parents, after conception, and to nursing 
mothers; thus are born children excelling in mind and body as well as 
good. Of all these plants he adds also the magical names. 19 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 

Elsewhere he link s Demokritos and Pythagoras. The latter, he 
says, first composed a book on plants, assigning his discoveries to 
Apollo, Aesculapius (Asklepios), and other gods. 

Democritus composed a similar work. Both men visited the Mages of 
Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt; and so amazed were the ancients 
at these books that they positively made even incredible statements. 
Xanthos, historian, relates in his first book that a young snake, killed, 
was restored by its father, using a plant that Xanthos calls balls, and 
that the same plant revived Tylo, whom the snake had killed. Juba 
too records the resurrection of a man in Arabia through a plant. 
Democritus stated, and Theophrastus credited him, that there was a 
plant, which, carried by a bird I have mentioned, forced out by its 
touch a wedge driven into a tree by shepherds. 20 

I Ic adds that “most authorities hold there is nothing that cannot 
lie achieved by the power of plants, but the properties of most are 
still unknown”. Tylon is a divine youth and reminds us of the 
(: re tan Glaukos, son of Minos, who was similarly healed by a 
herb that a snake had used. There are strong traces of initiation- 
ritual and myth in these tales. Plinius is fiercely anti-magian and 
never loses a chance to stress how fantastic or repulsive is magian 
magic. We shall hear more of what he has to say on the subject 
when we come to Ostanes. 21 For the moment here is what he says 
of Asklepiades of Bithynia, who came to Rome early in last 
century b.c. “Above all he was helped by magian deceits, which 
prevailed to such a degree that they were strong enough to 
destroy confidence in all herbal remedies. It was believed that the 
plant aethiopis dries up rivers and pools; that onothuris opens 
anything shut; that achaemenis, thrown into the ranks of an enemy, 
makes their lines turn their backs in panic.” Two of these herbs 
are among those of whom Demokritos wrote. 22 

Bolos then seems to be shown as earlier than Asklepiades; and 
we may add that he seems earlier than Anaxilaos of Larissa, who is 
mentioned in the Stockholm papyrus and who flourished about 
28 B.C. 

Another recipe: Anaxilaos relates this also to Demokritos: Pound some 
common salt into a fine powder together with schistose alum, with 
acid, make pellets of it. Let them dry three days in a bathroom. Then 
pound them afresh, fuse copper with this powder, three times, and 
cool and refresh it with seawater. The trial will bring out the quality 
of the product. 



IOI 


IOO ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

There were several other writers on plants. Bolos may have used 
plant-material in apocryphal works under the name of Zoroaster 
Ostanes, and other mages. Then there was Pamphilos of Alex- 
andreia (ist century a.d.) with a Peri Botanon in six books, which 
Galen tells us, gave the incantations to be spoken when gathering 
herbs; it also indicated the use to be made of talismans, libations 
and fumigations in dealing with plants. 23 

But though Bolos was clearly much interested in plant-magic, 
his main claim to fame lies in his position as the founder of 
alchemy. He must have drawn together the many allied strands of 
thought and practice concerned with transformative processes, 
and given them a unity which they had not previously attained! 
But exactly what that unity was, and how far he developed the 
theory of alchemy, it is hard to determine. Presumably his main 
alchemic work lies behind the Physika andMystika, which survives 
only in fragmentary form in the MSS. 2 * Let us consider its 
contents. It opens flatly with two recipes for purple dyeing. Then 
comes a passage more suitable for a preface, in which Demokritos 
invokes the shade of Ostanes. After that we get ten goldmaking 
recipes, a short polemic against the “young” (neoi) who won’t 
beheve in the virtue of the art. The polemic, addressed to the 
colleagues, symprophetai , of the writer, makes a sort of conclusion. 

There then is enough said on the dry tinctures and on the 
attention that should be paid to the scripture.” It is followed, 
however, by three goldmaking recipes, of which the last is 
addressed to Pammenes, who has taught the Egyptian priests. 

it is up to this point, that in the Physika the matter of gold¬ 
making goes.” 25 Then comes a theoretical statement, that a single 
species suffices for the production of a multitude of effects. We 
pass on to silvermaking, which ends the manuscript. Nothing is 
said of tinting precious stones. (The title Physika and Mystika 
cannot be simply translated Physical and Mystical Matters ; for 
physika here refers to the hidden forces in nature. It is equivalent 
to physikai dynameis, with special reference to sympathies and 
antipathies. The aner physikos was the man who in the hellenistic 
epoch was learned in occult relationships and forces; he was a 
mage. 26 Bolos seems to have founded the genre of Physika.) 

The complete text was much larger than our fragments. 
Synesios in the 4 th century states: “After getting his impetus 
from Ostanes, Demokritos composed Four Books on Tinctures, 
bibloi baphikai, on gold, silver, stones, purple.” 27 The same 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 

position is implied by the title of a treatise that Demokritos is 
said to address to Leukippos: “Fifth Book of Demokritos.” 28 
(I i is odd that the alchemists, who do not try to make use of the 
atomic theory, thus go out of their way to link their Demokritos 
with the other atomic philosopher. Bolos-Demokritos says to 
Leukippos: “I have made use of enigmas, but they won’t hold 
you up, you physical scientist who know all things.”) There are 
also some indications in the diction of the MS that the compiler 
was working under the empire. The work klaudianos is used to 
denote a substance that seems a mineral, not an alloy; but what¬ 
ever the material, the term can hardly be earlier than the reign of 
(laudius. 29 (An alchemist Klaudianos appears in a list of gold- 
makers; and we meet a moonbook of Klaudianos in a magic 
papyrus.) 30 Further a plant laccha is cited, the roots of which 
serve for tinting in red. Normally this plant is called anchonsa. 

[ I.accha is a term borrowed from India, and is not found again till 
ilie 8th century ( lacca ). Presumably it had come in through the 
trade-links with India in the ist and 2nd centuries a.d., which 
were responsible for the statuette of the goddess Lakshmi found 
at Pompeii. 31 

We may add the point that the compiler already feels a conflict 
between the old and the new schools of alchemy. The young 
school is rejecting a manual that has become sacred to the 



11. Urt-hekau, the Cobra goddess of magical spells 




















102 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

traditionalists; and we can only assume that the manual in 
question was the original and complete work of Bolos. 

Somehow that manual seems to have been lost and its place 
taken by the fragmentary Phjsika and Mjstika , which all the later 
alchemists know and cite, and which itself cites only one Egyptian 
worker in the art, Pammenes, together with the mage Ostanes. It 
is surprising that there is no reference to Hermes, Agathodaimon, 
Isis, Kleopatra, or Maria. \\ e assume that the author uses works 
written under the names of Ostanes, but knows none of the many 
treatises composed in the first couple of centuries a.d. 

Bolos-Demokritos tells us at the outset that he came to Egypt 
to teach ta phjsika though our text keeps only a displaced 
fragment of this preamble, “Yes, I too came to Egypt. I brought 
with me the lore of occult virtues, so that you might rise above 
multiple [diffused] curiosity and confused materials [or matter], 
hyle”. Then after dealing with the phjsika revealed by the 
philosophy (alchemy) he recounts: 

After learning these things from the master named Ostanes and aware 
of the diversity of the matter, I set myself to make the combination of 
natures. But, as our master had died before our initiation was completed 
and we were still all taken up in learning the matter, it was from Hades, 
as one says, that I tried to evoke him. I applied myself to the task, and’ 
as soon as he appeared, I apostrophised him in these terms, “Are you 
going to give me nothing in return for what I have done for you?” 

I spoke in vain. He kept silent. 

However when I addressed him as well I could and asked him how 
I should combine the natures, he told me that it was difficult for him 
to speak; the daimon wouldn’t allow it. He said only, “The books are 
in the temple.” 

Turning back, I then went to make searches in the temple on the 
chance of being able to lay my hands on the books. For he had said 
nothing about them while alive and he had died intestate—according 
to some, through using a poison to separate soul from body; according 
to his son, through swallowing a poison by mistake. And he had taken 
precautions before dying that no one should know of the books except 
his son on reaching maturity. So none of us knew anything of the 
matter. 

But despite all our searching we found nothing; and so we gave 
ourselves a terrible lot of trouble in trying to learn how substances 
and natures were united and combined in a single substance. Well, 
when we had realised the synthesis of matter, some time passed by and 

a festival was held in the temple. We took part, all of us, in a banquet. 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES I03 

Then, as we were in the temple, all of a sudden a column of its own 
accord opened up in the middle. But at first glance there seemed nothing 
inside. However [the son] Ostanes told us that it was in this column 
his father’s books had been placed. And, taking charge of the situation, 
he brought the thing out into the open. But when we bent to look, we 
saw in surprise that nothing had escaped us except this wholly valuable 
formula which we found there. “A nature is delighted by another 
nature, a nature conquers another nature, a nature dominate another 
nature.” Great was our admiration for the way he had concentrated 
in a few words all the Scripture. 32 

I Ic seems to mean that the text had escaped their notice when they 
first looked into the column; but he may mean that it summarised 
1 he final clarification of the art, which had evaded them in their 
own studies. The account is typical of the quests for knowledge 
of the later Hellenistic and Roman periods. The seeker is 
passionately devoted to the search for the truth—the particular 
sphere of knowledge which for him sums up all truth and assures 
bis salvation; he feels sure that he cannot attain his goal by his 
own resources, he needs some revelation from on high; so he 
manages to conjure up a god or a divine master; he finds in some 
temple a stele on which a secret is inscribed. Commonly, esoteric 
lore is handed on only to a son. How deeply the idea of an urgent 
need to seek and find had gone into the people of this world we 
may judge by two sayings attributed to Jesus. “Wherever there 
are . . . and there is one . . . alone, I am with him. Raise the stone 
and there you will find me, cleave the wood and there am I.” 
A nd, “Let not him who seeks . . . cease until he finds, and when 
lie finds he will be astonished. Astonished he will reach the 
kingdom, and having reached the kingdom he will rest.” A deep 
inner disquiet drove these people on. 

The author of Poimandres tells us of the after-effects of such a 
vision as this of Bolos-Demokritos: 

And I began to preach to men the beauty of piety and knowledge: 
“O people, men bom of the earth, you who have given yourselves 
up to drunkenness, sleep, and ignorance of God, be abstemious, cease 
to wallow in debauchery, spelled as you are by brutish sleep.” 

And when they had heard, they came to me with one accord, and I 
said: “Why, O men born of the earth, have you delivered yourselves 
up to death when you have the power of sharing in immortality ? Turn 
to repentance, you who taken the way of error and had ignorance for 
companion. Free yourself from the dark light, take part in immortality, 
leaving perdition behind you once for all.” 















DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES 


104 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

■ . . And I sowed in them the words of wisdom and they were 
nourished with the water of ambrosia. The dusk came and the light 
of the sun had begun quite to disappear. I invited them to give thanks 
to God. And when they had completed the offering of thanks, each 
fell asleep on his couch. 

As for me, I engraved on myself the benefaction of Poimandres, 
and after being thus filled full of what I desired, I felt an extreme joy. 
For in me the sleep of the body had become a sober vigil of the soul, 
the closing of the eyes a veritable vision, my silence a pregnancy of 
good, and the utterance of the word a bringing-forth of good things. 33 



12. Cobra-goddesses of Lower and Upper Egypt 


Bolos-Demokritos as an alchemist cannot preach in public, but 
he can and must do his best to spread the glad tidings among 
those vowed to the sacred art. Bolos says, “I came to Egypt.” The 
prophet of Poimandres says, “I have come, filled with the breath 
of truth.” The password for the order of pneumatikoi among the 
followers of the Gnostic Markos was “I have come.” Jesus says, 
“I have come that they might have life.” 34 The great alchemic 
formula which Bolos sets out was almost certainly taken from one 
of the works to which the names of Ostanes had been attached in 
the Hellenistic period. Synesios says, “This Ostanes is he who 
first gave the formula: a nature <&c.” The commentator called the 
Christian remarks, “A nature ebv., as Demokritos and his master 
Ostanes have said.” We noted how the formula was cited by 
Nechepso-Petosiris. Bolos uses it as a sort of refrain, repeating it 
at the end of each of his three recipes for making gold by means of 
liquids, washes, sfmoi. It appears similarly in the silvermaking 
recipes and it turns up again in the theoretical or doctrinal 
passages that surround the recipes. In the first section after the 
goldmaking recipes it takes the following form: “O natures that 

/ 


105 

produce natures, O natures wholly great that by your changes 
conquer natures, O natures that beyond nature delight natures.” 
Amid the polemic against the young we find: “In effect they do 
not know the antipathies of natures, how a single kind destroys 
ten others; for a single drop of oil can efface a great deal of purple, 
a little sulphur can burn many kinds.” And at the end of the 
goldmaking part: “What need have we of the coming-together of 
many kinds since a single nature suffices to conquer the All.” 35 

We may assume that the pervasive use of this refrain in Phjsika 
and Mystika goes back to the original work of Bolos. Indeed it 
seems plausible that it summed up and expressed the new element 
be brought into the field of treatises on dyeing and tinting. No 
doubt he drew on Mazdean and Stoic sources for the idea and its 
formulation; what was new was his more specific application of it 
to a series of processes which had previously been treated in a 
more or less pragmatic way. A late commentator thus sums up 
the issue of sympathy-antipathy in alchemy and looks back to 
“Demokritos” for the concise formulation: 

And so, by necessity, we must first learn the natures, the genus, the 
kinds, the affinities, the sympathies and the antipathies, the mixtures 
and the separations, the loves and hates, the aversions and all analogous 
diings, and by this means arrive at the composition that we want to 
bring about, as the excellent Demokritos sets it out in short. 

In effect, we must not ignore the fact that it is by virtue of a natural 
sympathy that the magnet draws the iron to itself, by virtue of a 
natural antipathy that garlic, rubbed on the magnet, takes away its 
natural property. In the same way again, if there is a mixture made by 
pouring water into wine and a separation made by oil poured into 
water, we must not neglect the things that come together by reason of 
a natural sympathy and we must at the same time take note of those 
that oppose one another through antipathy. 

Thus it is by reason of a natural sympathy and a substantial affinity 
that certain liquids mix together and amicably unite their substances, 
delight one another, and maintain themselves in this state of coexis¬ 
tence, which is proper to them, while others oppose one another and 
separate out by reason of an antipathy, a hate, an aversion. 36 

The tale of Demokritos and the ghost of Ostanes travelled far and 
long. In the Book of Prates, a Greek text that survives in an Arab 
version, an angel appears to the narrator: 

“Have I not told you,” he replied to me, “that the master of Demo¬ 
kritos had not taught him the combination of matters and had left 








Io6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

him in a painful doubt about it. So Demokritos had to study books, 
make researches, multiply experiences and informations, and undergo 
serious mortifications, before arriving at the right way. According to 
what he tells, he found nothing so difficult as the obtaining of the 
intimate mixture needed for realising the combination of matters .. .” 37 

Another Arab text displaces Demokritos: 

The Sage [here Balinos: Apollonios of Tyana] said: “Nature grasps 
Nature, Nature conquers Nature, and Nature rejoices in Nature.” 
Consider the wisdom of this Sage, how he gathered in a few words so 
much knowledge; for he means by this three marriages between 
Males and Females:.. , 38 

We noted above the legendary links of Demokritos with Dardanos 
and Apollobeches (Apollobex). Dardanos is not the Greek hero, 
who among other things was a mythical ancestor of the Trojans. 3 ® 
He represents Phoenikian, anti-Jewish magic, and was the rival 
of King Solomon. 40 

And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the 
east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all 
men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, 
the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all nations round about, (i 
Kings iv 31.) 

Here again we meet the rivalry of Egyptians and Jews in matters 
of wisdom and magic. Josephos adds to Kings: 

He spoke a parable upon every sort of tree, from the hyssop to the 
cedar; and in like manner about beasts, about all sorts of living creatures, 
on the earth, in the seas, or in the air; for he was not unacquainted 
with any of their natures, nor omitted inquiries about them, but 
described them all like a philosopher and demonstrated his exquisite 
knowledge of their several properties. God also enabled him to learn 
that skill which expels demons, a science useful and healthgiving to 
men. He composed such incantations also as alleviate distempers. 
And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms to drive away 
demons and prevent them from returning; and his way of cure is of 
great force to this day. I’ve seen a man of my country, Eleazar, free 
people that were possessed, in the presence of Vespasian, his sons, his 
captains and a whole host of soldiers. 

Eleazar put to the man’s nostrils a ring with a root in it, and drew 
the demon out; then bade the demon overturn a basin of water 

set some distance away, to prove that he had left the man’s body. 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES I07 

We have a lovecharm. The Sword of Dardanos, of which we shall 
filer have more to say. Columella speaks of Dardanos as if he 
dealt in the sort of spells that we have seen attached to Bolos- 
1 iemokritos; he is dealing with ways of banishing caterpillars: 

But if no medicine can the pest repel. 

Let the Dardanian Arts be called to quell. 41 

A girl at her first menstruation is led with bare feet and breasts, 
and with hair loose, thrice round the beds and garden-hedge. “To 
earth at once in twisted shapes the caterpillars roll.” Apuleius, 
denying the charge of magical practices, declares, “If you can 
prove that I thus got the least bit of gain, then may I be held a 
Phrynondas [? Carmendas], a Damigeron, a Moses, an Iannes, an 
Apollonios, or even Dardanos himself, or anyone else who, 
since the days of Zoroaster and Ostanes, has been famous among 
magicians.” 

The themes of books-in-a-tomb became so attached to Demo¬ 
kritos that we find in a Latin MS of the 9th century (from St 
Gall): “he wrote [a work] on ivory tablets and ordered it to be put 
in his own tomb.” 43 As for Apollobex, he seems the same as the 
l’ibechios who appears in alchemical MSS, who writes to Osron 
asking for the Divine Books of Ostanes, or who deals with 
yellowing substances without whitening. 43 

Before we end this chapter we shall glance at some more tales 
about sacred lore found on stelai or pillars. Such tales help us to 
enter into the minds of the men of these times, with their ceaseless 
quest for revelation and for lost secrets. Manethds speaks of the 
mysterious stelai of all-knowing Hermes. Iamblichos says: “If 
you propose some difficulty in philosophy, we’ll settle it according 
to the ancient stelai of Hermes that Plato and Pythagoras read in 
entirety and from which they constituted their philosophy.” 
Olympiodoros says the secrets of the mystic art are inscribed on 
the obelisks in hieroglyphs. 44 Josephos tells us of Seth’s children: 

They were the inventors of that peculiar sort of wisdom that is con¬ 
cerned with the heavenly bodies and their order. And that their 
inventions might not be lost before they were enough known, on 
Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by 
the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and mass of water, 
they made two pillars: one of brick, the other of stone. They inscribed 
their discoveries on them both so that if the brick pillar was destroyed 
by the flood, the stone pillar might remain . . . 45 



108 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Joscphos said the pillars were still to be seen in the land of Siriad. 
Till the end of the Byzantine period, writers repeated that Seth 
inspired by an angel, had taught men astronomy and even 
astrology, is Tales of other sages writing their lore on pillars were 
also told.' 47 Zoroaster, called the founder of star-science at 
Babylon, was said to have set up 14 pillars, 7 of bronze, 7 of bricks 
on which he inscribed the liberal arts, “so as to preserve them for 
the use of posterity in the case of either flood.” Seth and Zoroaster 
were identified; and it was due to a Scripture in Seth's Name that 
the author of the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum drew his tale of 
the apparition to the Mages of the star that informed them of the 
Messiah s birth. 48 

We noted above that the Arabs told of Hermes building the 
pyramids. They had received from the Sabians of Harran the 
works of Hermes as the greatest old Greek philosopher, and they 
accepted the view that the pyramids were stacks of vast treasures 
with the pictures and hieroglyphs as instructions in secret 
knowledge, alchemical and astrological. Edrisi (al-Idris, 1099- 
1166) who composed his Geography at the Norman court in 
Nelly in 1154, records: 


In „ A f h -r [ Pano P° lis on easte “ bank of Nile] one sees a building 
called al-Berba, which was built by the glorious Hermes before the 
blood. He foresaw, by virtue of his arts, that the world would be 
destroyed by catastrophe, though he did not know whether by fire or 
water. And so he first raised walls of earthy matter, free from combust¬ 
ible parts, and covered them with pictures and scientific emblems in 
order that in the event of the world being consumed by fire they would 
remain and even gain in solidity and those coming after could read the 
inscriptions. 

Then, however, he caused a building of the hardest stone to be 
erected, thus providing for the preservation of all sciences useful to 
man, and said, “In case the catastrophe by water occurs, the buildings 

destruction 1 ’ ^ remdn and P reserve science fro ^ 


When the Flood occurred, everything happened as Hermes predicted. 
Buildings of the same kind are found also in Esna and Dendera but 
those in Achmim are the most solid and remarkable for the number of 
their pictures which represent not only the stars but also the different 
arts, and further the number of inscriptions is very great. 49 


In Spangles of Gold by Ibn Arfa’ Ra (died 1197) Hermes is called 
a generic notion”. The real name is Ahmun, that is Henoch; 


DEMOKRITOS AND BOLOS OF MENDES IO9 

and Henoch was the same as Adam’s son Idris. His home was 
< ;hina; but coming through India to Ceylon, he found the Cave of 
I Icrmes with vast treasures, a portrait of his father Adam, and the 
loveliest jewels, including one especially large and costly (pre¬ 
sumably the Tabula Smaragdina)-, he was an alchemist. Psellos 
links Plato’s voyage to Egypt with the legend of mysterious 
re velations and tablets in the Pyramids. Arab writings on alchem- 
ism are full of hidden books: The Treasure of Alexander the Great , 

1 he Took of the Discovery of the Hidden Secret of the Kaf the Book of 
I lermes on the Causes of Beings. There are also the Arab hermetic 
works, such as the Book of Krates (based on a Greek original) 
where we meet not only the hidden book and its discovery, but 
also the ravishing-up-to-heaven and the celestial vision, a book 
delivered by some divine person (here Hermes Trismegistos), the 
dictated book, the heavenly temple with open door, the fight 
with a dragon. Further, for books in tombs, we have the tale told 
by Ploutarch. 50 Numa, the legendary king of Rome, whom he 
connects in various ways with Pythagoras, had his sacred books 
at death put in a stone coffin to be buried next to that with his 
body. Numa said that he had fully taught his doctrines to the 
priests, and that he did not want such holy precepts to circulate 
in an irreverent way. Some four hundred years later a great 
rainstorm washed the earth from the coffins on the Janiculum; 
one was quite empty, the other had 12 books of holy writ, 12 of 
(1 reek philosophy. The praetor read the books and reported to the 
Senate they were not fit to be made known to the public. So they 
were all burned in the Comitium. 51 

The Christians took over the idea of books of revelation. We 
find them in visionary form in The Shepherd of St Hermes. In the 
second Vision “I saw over against me the Old Woman whom I 
had seen the last year, walking and reading in a certain Book. 
And she said unto me: Can’st thou tell these things to the Elect of 
God? I answer’d and said unto her, I cannot retain so many 
things in my Memory, but give me the Book, and I will write 
them down.” A fragmentary Coptic tale, near the nth century, 
brings in Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Queen says, 
“In my country there is a column, O Shelemo, Master of Kings: 
if you send to seek it and if you can have it transported here, it 
will be useful for your palace.” He calls up all his demons and asks 
how long they will take to fetch it. 



no ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The first demon replied, “I’ll bring it this evening.” 

The second said, “I’ll bring it in an hour.” 

The third, who had no more than half [a body], said to Shelemo, “I’ll 
bring the column [between] two respirations of your breath.” 

Indeed the word was still in the mouth of Shelemo when the demon 
who had only a half was already on the way back. The column was on 
his wing, it was turning this way and that like . . . All early knowledge 
is written on this column. There is inscribed [the course] of the sun and 
[the moon],. . , 52 

The account given by Pausanias of a rite at Pheneos in Arkadia 
perhaps gives us a clue to some of the ultimate origins of these 
tales. There were “two great stones fitted to each other”. Yearly, 
“when they are celebrating the Greater Mysteries, they open 
these stones. Taking out certain writings, which bear on the 
Mysteries, they read them out in the hearing of the initiates, then 
put them back in their place that same night.” The books taken 
from a secret place in a shrine are read out to initiates in certain 
rites; then they are put back into a place that represents the 
spiritworld or underworld. In the rite at Pheneos a masked 
priest beat at the Underground Folk with rods”—presumably 
to keep them at bay during the time when the stones were opened 
up and the entry-exit of the spiritworld was dangerously open .® 3 


6 

More on Bolos 


Quotations from Bolos-Demokritos are scattered through the 
i ulier alchemic writings. We gather that he was responsible for the 
idea of the four basic metals. In Thirtjfive Chapters from Zosimos 
to Eusebios we are told 

1 lemokritos has named as substances the four bodies: that is, copper, 

iron, tin, lead_All these substances are employed in the Two 

Tinctures [of gold and silver]. All the substances have been recognised 
by the Egyptians as produced by lead alone. For it’s from lead that the 
oilier three bodies come. 1 

The Vhysika calls this lead “our lead”. It was doubtless antimony, 
die lead which is richest in water and so the most fusible. For 
i his reason the alchemists took it to a sort of primary matter. And 
so, to turn it into other metals, their first problem was to change 
its colour . 2 

Colour from far back had been one of the simplest ways in 
which craftsmen might identify ores, metals, stones. It also had 
always had a strong magical value, and properties were ascribed 
to stones largely on account of their colours. Similarly, certain 
colours were prescribed for magical figures. Thus, the Ophites, 
says Origen, used coloured circles in their mantic practices. In 
I Egyptian spells we find instructions like the following: 

Say on seven images of Jackals drawn on a piece of fine linen in 
colour . . . and again once in colour, and wrap the man’s body in it . . . 

[Book of Apepi] Say [this formula] on Apepi made out of wax, on 
which has been written in green colour his name that is written also on 
a new sheet of papyrus. . . . 3 

For the alchemists, from the outset, colour had a practical 
significance and was taken at the same time to reveal the inner 
nature of the metal and its changes. Colour was regarded as a form 





MORE ON BOLOS 


112 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of activity and so as spirit or pneuma, which could be removed 
from one substance and infused into another. “A tingeing pnerna 
gives its colour to metals.” The colour of plants was their pneuma. 4 
Generally the steps of transformation began with an earth or some 
identifiable solid or an alloy or base metal like lead, the tetrasomy 
(lead, tin, copper, iron), or “metal of magnesia”. What the 
worker sought was to impose on these bodies the qualities of 
liquidity (water) or fusibility and brilliancy (air, fire). The metal 
or material had often first to be broken down into a “body”: a 
degeneration that might be brought about by fusing it with 
sulphur. This step was called blackening, melanosis. Then came 
whitening, leukosis-, often a fusion with the “ferment” or “seed of 
silver”, in which ingredients like arsenic of mercury were used. 
Here was the counterpart of making or faking silver and its 
alloys. The third step was the production of a violet or purple 
colour, iosis. The violet ferment changed the gold through and 
through into an ios of gold, which was the permanent tincture, 
and, if cast on common gold, produced more. 

This interpretation of iosis (refining) has been challenged. One 
scholar has suggested that the iosis was a formation or purple 
bronze like the Japanese shaku-do\ but such a formation does not 
fit into the scheme of changes and there is no evidence for it. 
Another suggestion is that iosis was the final removal of any ios : 
rust or tarnish on the surface of the metal. However, it seems 
sure that iosis was a third colour-change expressing the culmina¬ 
tion of the alchemic process, so that ios here means violet and not 
rust. 

Indeed we see in the process a very ancient scheme of mystery- 
changes. The Souda, identifying Io and Isis, says that when Zeus 
carried Io off from Argos he changed her into a cow through 
fear of Hera; and this cow was by turns, white, black, violet. 
A linked triad of colours appears in the Byzantine romance 
Dosikles and Khodanthe (12th century), where the life-giving herb 
is white at the root, rosy in the flower, purplish in the stalk. We 
are here back at the theme of the life-giving herb which we noted 
above in connection with the myths of Tylon and Glaukos. In 
the version given by Hyginus of the Glaukos-myth we meet a 
riddle, associated with the lad’s return to life: What changes 
from white to red, and from red to black? The answer is the 
Mulberry. The Glaukos-myth has clear signs throughout of 
being derived from initiation-ritual; and riddles were often used 


113 

in such ordeals, in which the secret lore of the tribe or group was 
handed on to the initiate. (There also seems colour-symbolism in 
Pindar’s account of the birth of the prophet Iamos in a dark blue 
nr kyanean thicket where the mother puts down her crimson 
/one and silver pitcher, and the baby is steeped by the violets, 

in gold and deep-purple light. Hence Iamos, it is supposed, 
gels his name.) There can be no doubt that there was an ancient 
link of the three colours with a herb of resurrection. 5 Violets, 
we may further note, were taken as symbols of the rebirth of the 
young man god Attis and of the rape-blood of Persephone; 

1 hey thus link with the blood-plants like the pomegranate. In view 
nl die close connection between the magics of plant and metal in 
I he lores we have been considering, we may assume that the 
colour-triad of the flower of death-rebirth was sought for in the 
bodies, metals, of transformation—so that when such a triad of 
. hanges were noted in the bodies, it was felt to be significant of a 
change from death to life inside them. Indeed, we know the 
alchemists used those very terms. Thus, Stephanos, speaking of 

I he boros (standard or definition) of Philosophy, Alchemy, calls it 
“(lie dissolution of body and the separation of soul from body”. 

I'he Book of Krates says, “Know that copper, just like a man, has a 
spirit and a body.” 6 

I f we see the process as involving a further change, xanthosis or 
yellowing, between the white and the violet, so that it is “quad¬ 
ripartite” (as the Anonymous states), the principle is not altered. 
Zosimos addressing Theodoros says that “the yellow becomes 
blood-coloured and stable and finally like dried saffron”. Ibn 

II mail, writing in the 10th century and citing the Egyptian 
l radition, tells us: 

Marqunas said to Sanqaja, “O Sanqaja, similar is the habit of that 
Water. Consequently the men of the Egyptian Temples gave it superio¬ 
rity over all things and made it the Head of the world. The World is 
Maghnisiya. Hermes [Hurmus] called it by that name, for he said: It is 
the Microcosm, and it is alive, not dying till the Day of Resurrection, 
us long as the world will last—it revives all dead and it manifests the 
hidden and concealed colours and takes away the external colours.” 

Sanquaja said, “How does this take place, O King?” 

Marqunas replied, “In it is a wonder. When you pour it out on 
(hose three, the mixed things, and leave it [awhile], the White will help 
the Yellow and the Red, and [in turn] it will whiten them and convert 
them to the whiteness of pure Silver. Then the Yellow will help the 






MORE OK BOLOS 


114 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

White and the Red, and convert them into Yellow, and make them 
the colour of Gold. The Red will help the White and the Yellow, 
and will redden them and convert them into the Redness of the Serpent 
of the Sea. When you see them in this state, pour away that Water, 
because, if it remains in them, it will blacken them after the reddening! 
If you let it remain, then truly you will have committed a mistake in 
the operation and spoiled everything which you have correctly prepared. 
And you will die from the pain of error, poverty, and grief at [losing] 
wealth. I have explained all this in my book. Key of the Greater Wisdom, 
by mentioning the Water that comes out of a women before giving 
birth to a child. This Water woman name the Guide as it comes out 
before the child and the child is then perfect.” 

Sanqaja asked the King Marqunas about the knowledge of the Stone 
and said, “Does everyone know this?” 

Marqunas replied, “Yes, there is no one who does not know this, 
and everyone has advantages in it not found in anything else. But no 
one knows the advantages that you desire, save the men of the 
Egyptian Temples.” 7 

That is, the alchemists working in the secret tradition of Egypt. 

In the Petter of Demokritos to Peukippos the colour-changes are 
compared with those of the chameleon. 

Take only two parts of treated copper, of arsenic and of sandarach 
[realgar], a part of each, alum in a half part, two parts of saffron paste, 
and pound for 21 days, or 14, or 7. After the reduction to powder, 
add water, and when you’ve let it filter, you’ll see, in the course of the 
levigation, differing colours like those of the chameleon. When there 
are no more changes in many appearances, know that you have 
succeeded in the reduction. 8 

The Bolos-Demokritos of Plinius was very interested in the 
chameleon itself. The account begins: 

Democritus relates that its head and throat, burnt on logs of oak, cause 
storms of rain and thunder, as does the liver if burnt in tiles. The rest 
of his remarks smack of sorcery; and though I think them false. I’ll 
omit them all save where a point must be refuted by mockery, e.g., the 
right eye, plucked from the living creature and added to goatmilk, 
removes white ulcers on the eyes; the tongue, worn as an amulet, the 
perils of childbirth. The same eye, in the house, favours childbirth; if 
brought right in, very dangerous. The tongue, taken from the living 
animal, controls the results of courtcases; the heart, tied on with black 
wool of the first shearing, overcomes quartan fevers. 

The right front foot, tied as an amulet to the left arm by a hyena- 


115 

dIi m, is a strong protection against robbery and night-terrors; and the 
light eat [or jaw] against fears and panics. The left foot however is 
1, i.isicd in a furnace with the plant also called chameleon; an unguent is 
added; and the lozenges thus made are stored away in a wooden vessel, 
and, if we may believe it, make the owner invisible to others. The right 
shoulder has power to overcome adversaries and public enemies, 
(specially if a person throws away sinews of the same animal and treads 
on them. But as to the left shoulder, I’m ashamed to repeat the 
grotesque magic that Democritus assigns to it: how any dreams you 
like may be sent to any person you like, and how these dreams are 
dispelled by the right foot, just as the torpor caused by the right foot is 
dispelled by the left flank . . . 9 

And so on. The liver acts against lovecharms; the juice of 
bdellium (elecampane), drunk in the skin, cures melancholy; the 
nil halts or divides rushing rivers, and lulls snakes to sleep. 
Aldus Gellius, following Plinius, also wrote scathingly of 
Dcmocritos for having composed a book On the Power and 
Nature of the Chameleon. “The hawk, swiftest of all birds, if it 
chances to fly over a chameleon crawling on the ground, is 
dragged down and falls through some force to the ground.” Pie 
adds, “Many fictions of this kind seem to have been attached to 
llie name of Demokritus by ignorant men sheltering under his 
reputation and authority.” 10 



1 1. Relief of Campaspe riding Aristotle, cathedral of Lyon, late 13th or 
c ii ly 14th century a.d.; and Psyche ridden by Aphrodite and burned 
by fire on the Sword-of-Damokles gem 









Il6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

This interest in the chameleon makes all the more likely that the 
Letter to Leukippos is by Bolos or at least draws strongly on his 
writings. The process described in the Letter brings out another 
philosophic principle that we may attribute to him: that of the 
unity of matter in all its diverse forms and qualitative changes. 
The stages at either end of the scale, and all the intermediate 
stages, are equally upheld by a unitary stream or substratum, the 
hjpokeimenon. It has been pointed out that this position is not’that 
of Aristotle or Plato, but rather that of the Presokratics, who had 
also a unitary notion of matter as something with a predetermined 
nature or form underlying its accidental or incidental changes. 
Plato’s chora (space), and even more Aristotle’s prote hjle (primary 
matter), had only a sort of potential existence and could not 
themselves be defined as being here or there, in a specific place or 
with a specific form. 11 But that does not mean any regressive step 
on the part of the alchemists. They hold fast to the idea of a 
continual movement from the potential to the actual; but add the 
Stoic concept of an endless series of tensional forces controlling 
the movement (both from local or cosmic viewpoints). Thus they 
pick up the presokratic unity at a new level, much subtler and 
more complex, and they see it in terms of a hierarchical system of 
varying degrees of organisation, in which changes of quality 
appear. (Not, indeed, that we need to bring in the Presokratics at 
all; Diogenes Laertes tells us of the Egyptians: “They say that 
matter was the first principle, next the four elements were 
derived from matter, and thus living things of every species 
were produced.”) 

The change in quality, which was also a change in inner 
organisation, was linked or identified with the colour-changes. 
Lead, a primary common metal, had to be broken up, changed, 
driven up the scale, towards silver or gold; it had to change its 
colour. So fire was invoked; and under its action the lead 
was reduced to a fluid state. The fluidity thus brought about was 
what constituted the primary level, in which new potentialities 
were actively present. It represented, in one sense, the amor¬ 
phous state of Platonic Space or Aristotelean Primary Matter. 
Also the liquefaction of lead involved its blackening. So the 
blackness of the liquid condition above all expressed the attain¬ 
ment of a primary level, a state of chaos. Having produced chaos, 
the alchemist was in a position to act the role of demiurge and 
drive matter up its hierarchical ladder, with gold as the highest 


MORE ON BOLOS 117 

lip. To bring about this upward-movement the principle of 
sympathy or attraction was invoked. Somehow the Primary 
lllai k had to be transformed into White or Yellow, which 
expressed the nobler metals. This could be done, it was believed, 
it 1 me could find a metal which had certain affinities with both the 
I. iwrr and the higher substances, which sympathised with both of 
ihrm and which exerted its attractive power in both directions 
(downwards and upwards). By using the right kind of metal, in 
the right kind of proportions, one could swing the balance 
inwards the upper levels and thus transform the material into the 
higher. 

The principle of this operation was expressed in the famous 
m idic formula of Ostanes which Bolos-Demokritos discovered. 
The two materials, that of primary matter or liquid blackness and 
llial of the alloying and transforming addition, must have 
Noinething in common, some element of harmony. That is, they 
delighted in one another. But if that were all, a state of equilibrium 
was created and nothing happened; the first level was not trans- 
1 nidcd. So one nature must conquer the other. The conquering 
a< 1 was the moment of transformation, when the equilibrium was 
broken and a new relationship established. The new fused 
mi I isl ance existed at a higher level and involved the creation of a 
new quality, which revealed itself in the colour-change. But that 
was not enough. The new state must be stabilised, so that it 
mip,hi provide the basis for yet another upward-movement. 

I lencc the third section of the formula: one nature must dominate 
another. The three stages of the alchemic act might then be 
defined: mixture on the original level, introduction of a dynamic 
I a cl or which changes the original relations and creates a new 
qualitative level, then stabilisation of this new level. In an Arab 
1 exl we saw the process described as three marriages, the two 
substances acting on one another being called male and female. 

We may take some simple examples of the process, which 
involve materials we have already discussed in other relations: 
rhubarb, saffron, and magnet. Coat silverleaf with a mixture of 
Pontic rhubarb and Aminaion wine (Italian), then warm gently 
till there is complete penetration. Finally melt the leaf and you 
will find gold. “If the rhubarb is old, add an equal quantity of 
ely/Irion {chelidonion) that you have had macerated as is usual; for 
flydrion has affinity with rhubard.” 12 Both rhubarb and chelidonion 
provided a yellow dye-stuff. Here then we see plant-magic used 











XlB ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

to change silver into gold. In another recipe which also deals with 
the coating of a material, Kilikian saffron is used: “It has the 
same action as mercury, just as cassia has the same action as 
cinnamon.” In a silvermaking recipe that deals with projection on 
to copper or iron: “you will soften the iron by adding magnesia 
or an equal quantity of sulphur and a small quantity of magnetic 
stone; for the magnet has affinity with iron.” 13 

The idea of the fusion as a mating or marrying of substances 
with a magical affinity was already present. For silvermaking: 
“Take 4 ounces of whitish copper, I mean orichalk, melt it, and 
throw in little by little 1 ounce of tin previously purified, shaking 
it from below with your hand so the substances may be married 
together.” 14 The question of affinities is stressed by Zosimos 
addressing Eusebios: 

Take white sulphur, whiten by dilution in the sun with urine or alum 
or salt-brine. Native sulphur is much the whitest. Dilute it with san- 
darach [resin] or a heifer’s milk, for 6 days, until the preparation 
resembles marble. If it succeeds, it will be a great mystery,; for it 
whitens copper, softens iron, makes tin not crackle [hardens],’ makes 
lead non-fusible, metallic substances unbreakable, and fixes tinctures. 
For sulphur mixed with sulphur makes metallic tinctures sulphurous, 
since sulphur and metals have a great affinity with one another. 15 

In theory it was the qualities of the bodies, not the bodies them¬ 
selves, that did the interpenetration and fusing. “Only the qualities 
bring an action about. For a body, accord to Aristotle, cannot 
penetrate through another body. Only qualities are able to pene¬ 
trate one another together.” 16 This formulation cannot mean that 
the qualities existed as things-in-themselves, apart from the 
bodies; it asserts that the key-aspect of the moment of change lies 
in the action of qualities in the bodies on one another. The change 
does not come about through the mechanical addition or mixture 
of the quantities in the bodies, but in an unseizable moment of 
chemical qualitative change. In that moment, the qualitative 
change produces a new sort of unity, which cannot be reduced to a 
merely additive mixture. 

We saw above the link of Demokritos in legend with Dardanos, 
whose tomb he was said to have rifled for magical secrets. It 
would be worth while citing here a spell and an engraved gem, 
which help us to illuminate the question of Dardanian magic and 
to show how it links on the one hand with initiation-tests or 


MORE ON BOLOS 119 

ordeals and on the other hand with alchemic process. The 
text runs: 

Sword of Dardanos. Recipe called Sword, without its like for efficiency. 
I 'or it bends and drives the soul at once, wherever you wish, as soon as 
you recite the formula, while saying, “I bend so-and-so’s soul.” 

Take a magnetic stone, the breathing stone, design on it Aphrodite 
riding Psyche as on horseback, holding her with the left hand and 
dr ling up the locks of her hair. Above her head engrave achmagerarpepsei. 
Ik-low Aphrodite and Psyche, Eros, standing upright on a globe; he 
holds a lighted torch with which he burns Psyche. Below Eros these 
names: achapa Adonaie basma charako Iakob Iao e;pharpharei. 

On the other side of the stone, Eros and Psyche embracing, and under 
the feet of Eros ssssssss, below Psyche eeeeeeeeP 


14. Gem of Mithras slaying the Bull, with Eros and Psyche on the 

reverse (broken) 

There follows the indication of a prayer to the Principle of All 
Birth, which the magician is to utter after putting the engraved 
and consecrated gem under his tongue. A Syrian gem shows 
exactly the scene here described. Aphrodite rides on Psyche, who 
u ruggles along naked on all fours while Eros burns her from 
below. Aphrodite is calmly doing up her hair. The stone is a 
black jasper, evidently meant to correspond with the breathing 
magnetic stone of the papyrus. The inscriptions reproduce with 
variants those that the charm laid down: Ach aag egar gerph epsi 
and . . . chlado naiebacmlcha . . . oia kobisako. On the smaller face of 
die stone the two lovers kiss, but the inscription runs iasim e ma, 
which may be taken as isasim\on\ ema , “curable [love-]wound”. 
The series of Ss and long Es have been omitted because they 
represent, not magical words, but the eight breaths taken before 















120 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

uttering the prayer. (After an invocation for spell-loosing we 
meet a direction for eight breaths.) 18 For our spell the eight 
breaths seem a part of the consecration of the gem, which comes 
between the engraving and the praying. As the stone is thought to 
breathe, they may be meant to bring about an active harmony 
between stone and magician. On the back of the gem the artist has 
not attempted a spell, but merely adds a witty comment. Similarly 
on a stone from Arados there has been cut, “Happy the [meeting 
or embraces] of lovers.” 19 This comment accompanies the image 
of Aphrodite seated left in the backed chair, naked and leaning on 
a sceptre (?); in front of her, below, Eros and Psyche (?) em¬ 
bracing. 20 On other Syrian magic gems we find Aphrodite 
standing naked at her toilet or riding a lion with her hands in her 
falling tresses, her drape rolled round her right leg. 21 We also find 
on other gems Eros riding Psyche in a racing-course where the 
goals are Psyche’s butterfly and Eros’ weapons; Psyche being 
burned by Eros; Psyche tied to a tree while he burns her; Psyche 
tied to a griffin-topped pillar; Eros burning a small creature, 
apparently a butterfly. On the gem that shows Psyche being 
burnt by the tree, the inscription in front of her runs, “As you me,” 
that is, “As you have treated me, so I treat you.” 22 

In the Sword-of-Dardanos charm and the gem representing it 
we find the child’s-game of ephedrismos turned into an expression 
of triumph; the victim is ridden and tortured—burnt. We at once 
think of the fable of Psyche and Eros in Apuleius’ ^Aetufnorphoses^ 
where Psyche after her fall from grace is subjected to tests or 
ordeals by Aphrodite. Not that the charm or gem are likely to be 
derived from Apuleius; rather we must think of both art-works 
and story as deriving from folktales on the theme, in which no 
doubt there were many variants. But for us here what matters is 
the connection of Dardanos and his magics with Demokritos 
(whether or not Bolos-Demokritos), the use of the magnet (the 
stone with pneuma ) and sympathetic forces, and the way in which 
Psyche is burned into her new birth or redemption. The myth 
represents the three stages of the alchemic process: the primary 
stage of ignorance or unconsciousness, with the fall of Psyche- 
Eve-Pandora through curiosity; the purgation or moment of 
change through pain (by fire); the redemption in union re¬ 
established on a new level, of secure knowledge. Love with his 
torch here has become identified with the Sun, especially in the 
Egyptianised form of Horos; and it is his transforming flames 


MORE ON BOLOS 


I 21 


l hat both torture and release. 23 All this does not signify any 
direct relation of the myth or the charms with alchemy, but it 
helps to bring out the close inter-connections of so many of the 
elements of culture in this period. 

Before we pass on, we may note that Psyche developed an 
important relation to fire as the active ensouling principle or 
lorce. In the Chaldean Oracles she is identified with fire itself. 
“Psyche is a Fire, luminous with the Father’s Power; she remains 
immortal and Mistress of Life is she.” Eros in turn is first issue of 
i he Paternal Intellect and introduces his “binding fire” into the 
Ideas of that Intellect. No myth here connects them; but we can 
see how the binding fire might be used in an ordeal test on the 
ensouling principle if a tale of the initiation-myth type were told 
(>f Eros and Psyche. 

Among the statements attributed to Demokritos is that by 
alchemy “you will conquer poverty, that incurable malady”. 
Synesios makes this attribution; but the phrase is handed over to 
Zosimos by The Book of Sophe, and it appears again in the treatise 
of Agathodaimon: alchemy “drives away poverty in this world 
and will bring great reward in the next.” 24 Alchemy thus makes 
poverty a curable malady as the gem made love a curable wound. 
From the brevity of the aphorism it is not clear if the alchemist 
looks only to his own escape from poverty or to a general 
elimination of hardships. The more personal interpretation no 
doubt dominated in later phases; but at the outset alchemy may 
well have shared in the deepening revolt against the social system 
which is expressed in the many prophecies and apocalypses. 
What more likely to be a key-force in inaugurating the age of 
g(>ld than the science of transmutation into gold? In any event the 
aphorism about poverty seems to belong to the earlier strata of 
alchemic thought. 

Tn an Arabic treatise that appears to hold genuine Greek 
material we find Zosimos declaring that the ten processes, to 
which the sage Demokritos gave different names, are truly only 
one process and result in a single compound. Demokritos, he 
says, declared that nothing was more difficult than combination, 
which brought the Natures into a single Mercury. In another 
Cairo MS we read: “They have called this secret the Egg; but 
all of them mean Mercury.” And later, “The Ten that overcame 
ilie One are the Colours that proceed from the Tincture of the 
I '.gg. This is not found save in the Sea of Egypt, and it is its 







MORE ON BOLOS 


123 


122 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Water.” These statements are in the key of what we know of 
Bolos-Demokritos. 

Oddly, the conflict of Bolos-Demokritos with the young 
school seems to carry on in some tradition that appears in the 
medieval Latin Crowd of Philosophers, where near the start Lucas 
says that all things are from the Four Natures. Demokritus his 
disciple agrees and is rebuked by Arisleus. Lucas remarks, 
“Though Demokritos received from me the science of natural 
things, that knowledge was derived from the philosophers of the 
Indies and from the Babylonians. I think he surpasses those of 
his own age in learning.” The Crowd answer, “When he attains 
to that age, he will give no small satisfaction, but being in his 
youth he should keep silence.” The tables seem to be turned on 
him as a rash youth. In the Geponika the teachings of Demokritos 
are opposed to those of Zoroaster. 

We may now glance at the papyri of Stockholm and Leyden that 
have often been linked with the Phjsika. The methods of Bolos 
do not seem essentially Egyptian. They derive rather from 
Syrian, Jewish, Babylonian, Iranian sources. Bodies are changed 
by embedding them in chemicals which penetrate them right 
through in a prolonged heating of the mass; the Egyptian 
method on the contrary was by projection (with powder) or 
sublimation (conversion to vapour by heat and back again); 
chemicals were projected into the body to be changed, which 
might first be conditioned by roasting. The Egyptians had had a 
long tradition of dyeing of materials, as also had the Tyrians 
and others. They had also long adapted dyeing techniques to the 
tinting or tingeing of metals; they thus devised processes of 
dipping into mordanting baths, alloying, and treating with 
Royal Cement and Sulphur Water. This water was a reagent, a 
solution of sulphuretted hydrogen, also called Holy Water, 
perhaps on account of its horrible smell. It was made by heating 
sulphur with lime, then pouring water in. “On opening the 
cover,” Zosimos warned, “do not put your nose too close to the 
mouth of the jar.” 

Bolos used the data gathered by craftsmen, who seem to have 
compiled textbooks on alloying, dyeing, imitating precious metals 
and gems. It has often been suggested that papyrus X of Leyden 
and the Stockholm papyrus are such textbooks in a corrupted or 
mutilated form; but it has been shown that their recipes give no 


•pi.iciical results. We have however a Koptic MS, dated 7th-8th 
1 ( mi u ties, which reveals a system rather like that of the Stockholm 
papyrus; and from it reconstructions have been made of the 
tiii!'! nal dyeing recipes of that papyrus as well as of that of Leyden. 
The two papyri (which, being found in a magician’s tomb at 
I'hcbes, are actual examples of tomb-derived secrets) are certainly 
ol I E gyptian origin. For example, silver, argyros, is described in a 

I ci m, asemos, characteristic of Egypt. {Asem was properly elektron, 
.1 natural alloy of gold and silver, from which, by separation, 
either gold or silver could be drawn; this fact may have stimulated 

II ic itlca that by such methods a man could change any metal into 
another.) 26 But the papyri are no longer mere craft-manuals on 
the colouring of metals and textiles. They may go back to the 
lltjphika of Anaxilaos, written in Egypt where he had been 
banished by Augustus for practising magic. 26 If so, he was 
i a trying on the work of Bolos, who had studied the craft-manuals 
in his quest for clues as to the changes in matter; he and his 
school drew on the books of the craft-dyers of textiles and their 
lerminology so as to find ways of describing the alchemic changes 
nl (olour in metals and stones. 27 Terms used to define the de¬ 
creasing, mordanting (stypsis), and dyeing (baphe) of cloth, were 
used to define changes of form in metals. Transformation into 

ilvcr became baphe, that into gold katabaphe, superdyeing. 
( >1 her terms, such as varnishing, bronzing, waxing were taken 
over from old recipes for metal-tinting. Using extracts from the 
1 ralt-handbooks, the alchemists carried out their experiments, 
using or adapting recipes that seemed to effect or promise 
in informations. To exclude the uninitiated, they often only gave 
part of the recipe; and this sort of omission occurs in the Leyden 



15. Pompeian painting of the torture of Psyche 


/ 








MORE ON BOLOS 


125 


124 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

and Stockholm papyri. Alchemists admitted, “There is all that is 
needed for gold and silver; nothing has been forgotten, nothing 
lacks, except the vapour and evaporation of water. I have deliber¬ 
ately left them out, as I clearly set them out in my other writings.” 28 
New terms and cryptograms were also brought in to denote the 
chemicals of the dyers and metallurgists. The aim had completely 
changed. It was now a philosophical inquiry into the nature of 
material changes. Colour-changes (that is, qualitative effects) 
were the main criteria, but there were a few efforts to control the 
situation by means of weights. 

Because of the attempt to make an esoteric doctrine or philo¬ 
sophy out the data of craft-recipes and the like, the creed of 
secrecy grew up from the start, together with the use of symbolic 
words: wolf’s milk, seafoam, cat’s eye, dragon’s blood. Here 
there was again affinity with magical procedures. Thus in the 
Leyden magical papyrus V we find Explanations, Hermeneumata, 
dealing with the symbolic names of certain plants and stones, 
names engraved on divine images to prevent the profane from 
getting control of the practices. 29 

Now that we have had a glance at what can be made of 
the shadowy but crucial figure of Bolos, let us look back at the 
historical Demokritos and see if we are at all clearer of the 
relationship. Both Plinius and Aulus Gellius were very puzzled at 
what seemed a contrast between the rigorously materialist 
scientist and the champion of sympathetic magic in its most 
fantastic forms. Gellius says the tales “are unworthy of the name 
of Democritus”. Plinius, speaking of the twin palmbranch, 
remarks, “Would that Democritus had been touched with such a 
branch, since he assures us that by it wild prattling is restrained. 
It is clear that a man, in other respects of sound judgment and of 
great service to humanity, was brought low through his zeal to 
aid mankind.” 30 Petronius, with his keen critical mind, pays a 
high tribute to Demokritos, turning to him for an example of 
entire scientific dedication in contrast with the prevailing de¬ 
generation under the Empire. “Love of money started off this 
reversal f tropica]. In former times virtue was still loved for its own 
sake, the noble arts flourished, and there were the sharpest 
struggles among mankind to prevent anything being discovered 
that might benefit posterity. So Democritus extracted the juice of 
every plant on earth, and spent his whole life in experiments to 


discover the virtues of stones and twigs.” 31 (He uses an astro- 
immical metaphor for the turn-back in human affairs; the reference 
In to Capricorn, where the sun turns back.) Note that it is to the 
work on plants and stone, not to atomist theory, that he looks as 
1 lie characteristic scientific activity of Demokritos. 

It is impossible to believe that the whole tradition of Demo- 
l.rilos’ studies had become perverted by the 1st century a.d. and 
1 hat no Hellenistic scholar noted how a lot of alien treatises were 
being foisted on to the philosopher. We must ask again if the 
1 realises on plants and on the chameleon were the work of the 
5 th or the 2nd century b.c.? That the historical Demokritos 
n.1 veiled extensively and really did know the work of the mages 
and tnagousaioi, we may accept. More than any other classical 
(i reck thinker he seems to have been respectfully interested in the 
ideas and practices of the barbaroi. We have seen that the strange 
laics of his tomb-haunting seem certainly to have their origin in 
the world of fact and to be connected with his theory of eidola. 
That theory presupposes the idea of sympathetic and antipathetic 
forces; for otherwise it would be impossible to explain why the 
eidola, swarming furiously everywhere around us, impact on only 
a' | icrson here or there. Demokritos carried out his experiments, it 
seems, precisely to find out what conditions aided the impact or 
deadened it. We have no account from him of how the eidola were 
((instructed, but we may assume that he saw all spiritual activity 
as the construction and emission of bodies of finer atomic 
< (imposition than that of palpable bodies. Even inorganic bodies 
seem to have been considered to own the power of emitting 
eidola, and so the forms of energy were seen at work in all bodies 
whatever. How the eidola emitted by a stone were differentiated 
from those emitted by a man we do not know, but the theory 
would seem to assume both a unity of energy at all its levels, plus 
a differentiation. If so, it was in accord with the alchemic attitude 
in matter, though the addition of Stoic concepts of pneuma, of 
fields of force, was needed to make the system more coherently 
dynamic. 

The doctrine of the eidola seems certainly to go back to the 
mages. Diogenes Laertes says of the latter: “They practice divina- 
1 ion and forecast the future, declaring that the gods appear to them 
in visible form. Moreover they state that the air is full of eidola, 
which, emitted vaporously, enter the eyes of keen-sighted seers.” 
We have here the basis of all the views attributed to Demokritos 








MORE ON BOLOS 


127 


126 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

in this matter: a doctrine of emanations, aporrhiai , which result in 
a host of flying images all around us. The application of the 
doctrine by the mages, however, seems much more limited than 
that of the philosopher. They seem to have devised it to explain 
certain phenomena of second-sight and prophecy. Demokritos, 
with his aim of finding a rational and materialist explanation of all 
the strange phenomena in the universe, took it over and in¬ 
corporated it in his atomic system. However, the link with the 
mages is striking. 32 

If we knew more of the collection of Demokritos’ works made 
by Thrasyllos in the first half of the first century a.d., we should 
be able to estimate more clearly the difference between Demo¬ 
kritos and Bolos. But we must assume that the collection included 
the works that Plinius cites, even if he was quoting from some 
intermediary Latin version. On the whole we are driven to the 
conclusion that there was much in the writings of the historical 
Demokritos that had affinities with the later tradition of Bolos, 
Anaxilaos, and Dioskorides. What Bolos seems to have added was 
a more precise comprehension of the principle of sympathy- 
antipathy, a more dynamic and organic conception of the 
interrelationships of all bodies in the cosmos, and the triadic 
formula of transformation, with its notion of a hierarchy of 
levels. He thus founded what we may call the dialectics of 
alchemy, the first fully based theory of development in forms and 
bodies. This theory still lacked any evolutionary background; it 
saw development as involving only the changes of single bodies or 
groups of bodies inside a universe where the hierarchical system 
had been established for all time. It was therefore cyclic, en¬ 
visaging a movement down as equally possible as a movement up 
the scale. But it was none the less a tremendous achievement, 
charged with endless potentialities. 

To bring out how the idea of vital correspondences had become 
more and more a part of the culture of this world, we may carry 
further the analysis of the sibillations in the Sword-of-Dardanos 
charm. The seven vowels in varying combinations were used both 
in magic spells and in formulas of religious incantation. The work 
On Style that goes under the name of Demetrios Phalareus states, 
“In Egypt too the priests celebrate the gods in hymns through the 
Seven Vowels, which they utter in due order; and the sound of 
these letters is so euphonious that men listen to them in preference 


!o pipe and lyre. So, if we do away with the clashing of the 
v< >wels, we simply take away the melody and clashing of speech.” 33 
I )cmetrios has been praising the euphonic effect of a succession of 
vowels in composition, citing Homeric forms like eelios or onion. 
Si range names and vowel-combinations play a considerable part 
m spells: 

Your Name composed of Seven Letters according to the Harmony of 
1 lie Seven Tones which have their sound according to the Twenty- 
right Lights of the Moon, Saraphara, Araphaira, Braamarapha, 
Ahraach, Pertaomech, Akmech, Iao: ouee, iao, oue, eiou, aee,e eou, 
rcou, Iao. 

I invoke you Lord in a hymnic song, I celebrate your Holy Might, 

II c e i o o 6 o. Sacrifice after song: eiovo... 

,md so on with a string of more vowels. It has been argued that, 
since the seven vowels were used by the Gnostics in place of the 
seven tones of the seven-stringed lyre (tuned on the two conjunct 
icirachords of the Dorian scale) we can read the letters as notes. 
According to Pythagorean doctrine each tone of the scale 
represented the note of one of the seven planets; and so each 
vowel was a magical symbol of the music of the spheres. 34 The 
due for determining the pitch of each of the tones represented by 
.1 vowel was found in the Harmonics of Nikomachos of Gerasa, 
who held the Pythagorean creed of the harmony of the world. 35 
I lc stated that motion of each sphere made a sound, to which the 
names of the seven vowels were given. (According to Anaximan- 
dros’ system, accepted by the Pythagoreans, the spheres carried 
1 lie heavenly bodies in revolutions round the earth. The later 
lorm of these notions however came from Aristotle. Eudoxos had 
worked out a single-centred system in a purely mathematical 
tin (del, with the aim of correcting the angular displacement of the 
planets as observed; Aristotle made out of this model a system 
with substantial and definite spheres.) The concordance of 
vowels, planets, tones, was taken over by the Gnostics. 38 Markos 
m liis Silence said (according to Irenaios): “The first heaven 
n< ninds the A, the next the E, the third the long E, the fourth in the 
middle cries out the Might ( dynamic ) of the I, the fifth the O, the 
•,ixth the U, the seventh and fourth from the middle calls out the 
I dement of the Omega.” (The symbolism is increased by the facts 
l lint the same word, stoicheion, was used for letter and for element, 
,md that the Greeks had no numbers, but used letters for them.) 
Sc) we get the system. 


t 










MORE AND ON BOLOS 


129 


128 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


A 

Moon 

Nete 

d' 

E 

Venus 

Paranete 

c' 

E (long) 

Mercury 

Paramese 

b b 

I 

Sun 

Mere 

a 

O 

Mars 

Lichanos 

g 

U 

Jupiter 

Parhypate 

f 

Omega 

Saturn 

Hypate 

e 


So much for the mystical correspondences. But it does not appear 
that the vowel-notes were ever actually sung. Nichomachos seems 
to be considering a sort of mystical utterance, since he says that 
the initiates invoke the god by hissings and sibillations, by 
inarticulate and incoherent sounds. 37 The vowels were there 
so that the initiate might transfer the sound from an earthly 
to a heavenly sphere; the earth-notes were to be transformed into 
the music of the spheres. Silence, Sige, was “the first companion of 
the divine name”. 38 (A confused filtering of these ideas into com¬ 
mon parlance appears in a letter of the 3rd or 4th century, where 
the writer, complaining of a lack of replies, remarks, “Among 
philosophers silence is an answer.”) 

When in the first chapter of Revelation Christ says, “I am 
Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending,” the reference 
is probably not to the alphabet, but to the song of the magical 
vowels of the Egyptians and the Gnostics. For the vowels in that 
song represented the whole cosmos: the whole nexus of dynameis 
and planetary influence and harmonies that made up the living 
universe. Alpha and Omega in this sense have a vast and potent 
meaning, which is hardly shared by the alphabet as a thing by 
itself. 39 On magic gems we find stars put under vowels or vowels 
put at the end of rays round the head of Khnoubis, whose solar 
aspect connects him with the planets. One papyrus recommends 
us to say Alpha to the east. Epsilon to the north. Eta to the west. 
Iota to the south, Omicron to the earth, Upsilon to the air, and 
Omega to the sky. Sometimes the tone of the voice uttering the 
vowels is prescribed: thus alpha is to be spoken “with a swelling 
tone and an open mouth”. 40 

The play with vowels probably goes far back, though not in the 
systematic way that we find in the later periods. Thus it has been 
noted that Pindar starts his first Olympian and Pythian Odes with 
syllables in which five different vowels appear in succession, as if 
he were announcing the musical theme of some great fugue. The 
sequences set out the five main tones of his vowel scale. 41 The 


< 1 reeks were very sensitive to such effects, and this broad state¬ 
ment. of vowel-sounds at the outset may well have been felt to 
establish some sort of harmony between the poem and its theme, 
between the activities of men and the divine life. The suggestion 
is not so farfetched as it may seem at first glance. Pythagorean 
ideas about numbers, names and harmonies were already well- 
known; Empedokles was using stoicheion for element; Plato was 
si >< >n to use the same word for a simple sound of speech—later it 
1 atne to mean much the same as gramma, letter. In the Kratjlos of 
Plato Sokrates discusses words, not as signals or instruments for 
distinguishing the various aspects of reality, but as vocal re¬ 
presentations or imitations of the object: as direct mimetic effects 
like baa-baa or as phonetic expression of the inner nature of 
tilings. It is argued that certain letters naturally express physical 
qualities by the positions and movements of tongue and lips; even 
ethical and dimensional qualities, it is suggested, can be thus 
uttered. Though Sokrates ends by pointing to the limitations and 
weaknesses of these positions, they had a strong basis in Greek 
thinking and were to affect men for a long time. The Stoics were 
much concerned with matters of phonetics and euphony, on 
account of their doctrine of etymology: etymo-logia , the true 
neiise of a word according to its origin as discovered by analysis. 42 
I .oukian tells of a lawsuit between Sigma (S) and Tau (T) before 
1 he Court of the Seven Vowels, in which S accuses T of stealing 
his property, especially in Attic. Dionysios of Halikarnassos 
discourses on the tone-qualities of various letters as well as on the 
varying emotional or ethical effects of metres. He also puts the 
common viewpoint that euphonious or melodious speech was a 
sort of spell cast on the listener: 

Who is not swayed and held as if by magical incantation, by one 
melody of speech, yet quite unaffected in such a way by another, or 
placated by one kind of rhythm and exasperated by others . . . 

|The author should] join together words that are melodious, 
rhythmical, and euphonious, by which the hearing is touched with a 
In-ling of sweetness and sweetness ... or he should intertwine and 
iiucr weave those which have so much natural effect with those that can 
hi-witch [ goeteuetai ] the ear so that the unattractiveness of the one set is 
1 ivcrshadowed by the grace of the other. 43 

Thus a general idea of words as capable of magically captivating 
effects led to precise and detailed formulations about particular 
vowels or sibillations, which, playing their part in cosmic 






130 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

correspondences, could compel both gods and men in desired 
directions. Magic, we may note, did not merely operate by the 
(supposed) laws of sympathy-antipathy; it also sought to a 
great extent to change a given situation—to introduce new 

qualities into it. To send love into the mind and body of some- 7 

one who previously did not feel that love. To this extent it was 

allied to alchemy, as it was also in many of the materials it used _ 

and in the frequent use of fire to bring about the desired change! Ostanes 


W i', have seen the important role that Ostanes the Mage was said 

10 have played in the crucial moment that brought about the 
bi till of Alchemy. His formula it was that enlightened Bolos, who 
had been wandering in a maze of facts or recipes about the 
pi issible combinations and mixtures of matter, the diaphorai of hyle. 
Was the tale of his role as master of Bolos-Demokritos a mere 
fantasy? or does it hold an essential clue to the meeting of 
thinkers, or the confluence of traditions, which created the new 
science? Diogenes Laertes tells us: 

11 )emokritos] was a pupil of certain Mages and Chaldaioi. For when 
King Xerxes [during his invasion of Greece] was entertained by the 
1.11her of Demokritos [at Abdera], he left men in charge, as in fact is 
staled by Herodotos; and while yet a boy, he learned theology and 
astronomy. 1 

This is a very free interpretation of what Herodotos says. The 
story may have come from the later writers of treatises About the 
Magoi or from Hekataios, also of Abdera. Plinius adds that the 
mage Ostanes accompanied Xerxes on his expedition; but no one 
seems to have said that Demokritos as a boy met him at Abdera. 

11< iwever the latter may well have seen and heard of the mages at 
i lie time when the Persian army passed through his town. For 
Plinius, as for the pseudo-Damigeron, Ostanes seems the chief of 
the mages, not Zoroaster. We also find him called, in an oracle, 
King of the Heptathongos, revealer of the invocation-formulas 
with special effect on planetary deites. The Heptathongos appears to 
mean the seven-corded lyre, emblem of the harmony of the spheres 
;ind suggesting the seven vowels. 2 But for Plinius the masters 
of Demokritos are Dardanos and Apollobeches. He also knows of 
.mother mage Ostanes who accompanied Alexander on his 
victorious travels. (Here there is a suspicious parallelism with the 









OSTANES 


x 33 


I32 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

first Ostanes who accompanied Xerxes. Perhaps the Persians 
wanted to say: Our own great invasion under Xerxes failed, 
though Ostanes was there; but we still had our prophet with the 
counter-expedition of Alexander, which won.) However the name 
may have been common or handed on by father to son, as we find 
in the story of the initiation of Bolos-Demokritos. 

Plinius, who looks on the mages as the inventors and pro- 
pagators of magic, is bitter against Ostanes. He cites the most un¬ 
pleasant recipes. Thus for an aphrodisiac, “The right testicle of an 
ass taken in wine or a bit of it worn as an amulet on a bracelet; or 
the foam of an ass after copulation, collected in a red cloth and 
enclosed, as Ostanes tell us, in silver.” 3 The great power of the 
mages, he says, built up over many ages, results from an inter¬ 
weaving of medicine, religion, astrology. Thus, “magic rose to 
such a height that even today it has sway over a great part of 
mankind.” He asserts, “without doubt it arose in Persia with 
Zoroaster. On this our authorities are agreed.” 

The first man, as far as I can discover, to write a yet-extant treatise on 
Magic was Ostanes, who accompanied the Persian king Xerxes on his 
invasion of Greece, and sowed what I may call the seeds of this 
monstrous craft, infecting the whole world by the way at each stage 
of their journeying. A little before Ostanes, the more careful inquirers 
place another Zoroaster, a native of Proconnesus. One thing is certain. 
It was this Ostanes who chiefly roused among the Greek peoples not so 
much an eager appetite for this lore as a sheer mania * 

Elsewhere he speaks of the blood of gladiators drunk by epileptics, 
though we shudder with horror when in the same arena we 
look at even the beasts doing the same thing.” They liked best to 
suck blood from a living man. 

Others seek to secure the legmarrow and the brain of infants. Not a 
few among the Greeks has even spoken of the flavour of each organ 
and limb, going into all the details and not excluding nailparings— 
as though it could be thought health for a man to become a beast and to 
deserve disease for the very remedies he begs. And by Hercules, well 
deserved is the disappointment if these medicines prove useless. To 
look at human entrails is considered a sin. What must it be to eat 
them? Who was the first, Ostanes, to think of such devices as yours? 
For it is you who must bear the blame, you destroyer of human rights 
and contriver of monstrosities. 5 

Then he goes on: “Granted that foreigners and barbarians 
discovered the rites, did the Greeks also have to make these rites 


1 licit own? There is extant a treatise by Demokritos stating that a 
. 1 mi plaint is more benefited by bones from the head of a criminal, 
.md other complaints by those of a friend or guest.” 

The works written under Ostanes’ name dealt with plants and 
Niones, as did those of Bolos. In these works as in those attributed 
lo Zoroaster, stones were considered alive; they are described as 
,icl ing together with animals and herbs in the composition of 
( harms. The process of differentiation that sets in later does not 
here seem very advanced. 6 Thus in an extract from Tatian (which 
,1 glees with a passage in Nepoualios, who is himself full of 
borrowings from Bolos) we read how in dealing with derange¬ 
ments of the spirit roots and herbs act together with a mixture of 
liinews and bones; then there is the question of the instinct that 
drives animals to eat herbs that will cure their maladies. 7 

Under Nero, Pamphilos of Alexandreia composed a sort of 
polyglot dictionary of plant-names (source of many items in the 
I Marius of the pseudo-Apuleius as well of marginal notes on 
Home MSS of Disokorides); he noted Persian or Aramaic words 
1 hat Ostanes had used. 8 At least in part he seems certainly to have 
been using works of Bolos. Plinius in the passage dealing with the 
('Jmrokmeta of Bolos-Demokritos, stated that his author had 
reproduced also the magical names of all the plants mentioned, 
lb >los no doubt had found in the works of Ostanes and Zoroaster 
or their successors nomina barbara which the thaumaturges 
recommended for use in spells. It was this part of his work that 
Pamphilos drew on. 9 If however we may trust the pseudo- 
Apuleius and pseudo-Dioskorides, the works under Zoroaster’s 
name used only Greek terms, often explaining the plants’ virtues 
by their etynology, while Ostanes seems to use almost all foreign 
words. It would follow that the Alexandrian scholars had a book 
On Nature by Zoroaster with practically everything, apart 
perhaps from a few Aramaic names, done into Greek, while the 
version of those under Ostanes’ name largely transliterated the 
mines and formulas. 

As for stones, Plinius mentions Zoroaster among his con¬ 
sulted authors, but not Ostanes, who, though cited for other 
matters, is never singled out as an authority. Plinius’ sources 
could not have mentioned any specific work of his. 10 Only the 
pscudo-Damigeron in his Latin lapidary mentions the name. This 
lapidary, ostensibly dedicated by the King of Arabia, Evax, to 
Tiberius, was at least written two or three centuries later; the 







OSTANES 


135 


134 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

text on which the work was based however was clearly Hellen¬ 
istic. 11 From this latter many lapidaries give us extracts, e.g. the 
Orphic Hthika in verse (4th century) or Aetios of Amida. The 
pseudo-Damigeron omits the more bizarre bits of pagan magic, 
e -g. the stone synoichites, which evokes the dead in Plinius, is* 
soberly described. But, though he brings new elements in, he 
preserves much of his original. When he remarks that the mages’ 
statements, though they may seem odd, rest on genuine 
experiences, he is perhaps drawing on Bolos and Xenokrates in 
their borrowings from Demokritos. 12 

We must now look in a broader way at the Iranian tradition 
represented by Ostanes. In Roman times there was in circulation a 
literature composed in Greek and headed with the names of the 
three mages, Zoroaster, Ostanes, Hystaspes. The background was 
Iranian. The universe was seen as formed by two conflicting 
principles or forces, light and dark, and a Saviour, born of Zoro¬ 
aster s seed was to descend into the lower world. We meet 
traditions of Zoroaster changing his appearance so as to be 
identified with the prophet Seth, son of Adam, and of his des¬ 
cendant Saoshyant becoming a form of Jesus. For this reason we 
get the journey of the Mages to pay homage to the baby Jesus. 
The books under the names of the three mages went back at 
least to the 2nd century and helped to provide much of the myth¬ 
ological framework of Egyptian Gnosticism. Under Hystaspes’ 
name oracles predicted the end of the world, which was to be 
preceded by the fall of Roman power. The authorities sought to 
ban the predictions. So wide was the fame of the mages that 
Arnobius imagines an unbeliever saying of Christ, “He was a 
magus. Fie did all his deeds with secret arts, he stole the name of 
mighty angels and far-off disciplines from the sanctuaries of the 
Egyptians.” 13 

The contact of Greek and Persian cultures went far back. In 
the 5 th century, before Herodotos, Xanthos the Lydian mentioned 
Zoroaster. Mages had already moved in from the east and lighted 
their pyres in Lydia. Anaitis, the Persian Artemis, had a temple at 
Hypaipa and at Hierocaesareum, the latter reputed to have 
been founded by Kyros. And, before Artaxerxes Ochos put up 
a statue of her at Sardeis, she seems to have had another temple 
there. 14 Dionysios of Miletos, who composed in Ionian a History 
of Persia from the death of Dareios in 516, dealt with the mages. 


IVrsians were established in colonies in the plain which took 

I mm them the name of the Hyrkanion Pedion and which had 
.1 village Dareiou Kome. 15 Other Persians lived at Ephesos by the 
sanctuary of Artemis, to which they had given the Highpriest, the 
Mcgabyzos. The great altar at Pergamon was a fire-altar like 
the pyraitheia of the Persians, as also was that at Magnesia where 
Ariemis was identified with Anaitis. In the north at Daskylion a 
pli-ccntury relief represented the mages sacrificing according 
In the Mazdean rite. 16 The list of authors dealing with the mages 
is extensive and shows that there was considerable interest 
in them. 

Already Herakleitos of Ephesos, who flourished at the end of 
the 6th century b.c., knew of the mages: “Nightwalkers, magoi, 
bacchantes, revellers and participants in the mysteries! what are 
regarded as mysteries among men are unholy rituals.” But though 
he thus expressed distaste for the popular festival-excitations, he 
himself was deeply affected by the mysteries and wrote his book 
in the hermetic style of a mystery-book or of the orphic hieroi 
logoi-, the few liturgical fragments surviving of the Eleusinian 
M ysteries show the same antithetical form as his writings. Born of 
.111' undent royal family, he was by right of birth a priest-king and 
lie composed in an hieratic idiom. 17 The importance of fire in his 

I I linking suggests a strong magian influence. Though it would be 
incorrect to call his terms alchemic, we can see in them the 
elements that were coming together to form the science of Bolos. 

hire for him was neither a mere symbol of the universal process nor a 
substrate persisting as identical throughout its qualitative alterations. 

I Ic speaks of it both as a token for exchange like gold in trade and 
as involved in change itself; and it was the easier for him in this case 
1 c»identify the sign and the thing signified, since fire does appear to be 
the one existing phenomenon that is nothing but change. 18 

I n comparing fire with gold he is equating the way fire changes all 

II lings with the way money upsets and thows into flux all human 
relationships; but the link is none the less interesting for us here. 
Basic in his thought is the notion of the ceaseless conflict of 
opposites; and he sees fire as a transformative force, as in the 
t ryptic statements: 

| The phases of fire are] craving and satiety. 

It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and 
retires. 







OSTANES 


137 


136 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The transformations of fire are first sea, and of sea, half becomes 
earth, and half the lightning-flash. 

The thunderbolt pilots all things . 19 

The flash and the thunder are not opposed in ancient thought; each 
term suggests both something seen and something heard. The 
thunderbolt here seems to represent fire as a formative as well as a 
destructive principle, so that there is a suggestion of a guiding 
force in the transformation, though in view of the hermetic idiom 
we cannot press the point. The flash, prester, however, seems the 
active principle operating on water and earth. In a wild florid way 
we find the same ideas and images in the Chaldean Oracles, eight 
centuries or more later: From the First Intellect, we there are 
told, “spring in abundance the implacable Thunderbolt, the 
lightning-receiving Wombs of the all-illuminating Rays of the 
father-begotten Ilekate, the guiding Blossom of Fire and the strong 
Pneuma beyond the fiery poles.” 

There is no need here to trace further the writers concerned 
with the Mages, but we may mention Ktesias who was physician 
at the court of Artaxerxes Mnemon in the later 5th century; 
Dinon in the 4th century who feels the need to defend the mages 
against the charge of wizardry and to define mageia as the service 
of the gods; Eudoxos of Knidos, an important astronomer, who 
denies the value of horoscopes, but finds value in the dualistic 
outlook, identifying the two principles with Zeus and Hades—he 
is probably the main source of information about the mages for 
Plato and his school. Plato’s myth of Er, the man returned from 
the dead, seems Iranian. Other writers much concerned with the 
mages were Hermodoros of Syrakousa, Herakleides of Bithynia, 
Eudemos of Rhodes (who studied the Zervanism being adopted 
by some groups of mages, with its idea of resurrection followed by 
immortality), Klearchos of Soloi (who was interested in fakir-types 
of endurance), Theopompos, Hekataios of Abdera, Poseidippos 
the Stoic, and so on. Aristotle in his work On Philosophy dealt with 
the harmony of the world conceived as a great temple, the Great 
Year, the periodical return of the same ideas in human thought: 
views that are linked with those in the platonic PLpinotnis and with 
those set out by the mages around Xerxes. He seems to have 
thought the foundation of Plato’s Academy represented a rebirth 
of the spirit of Zoroaster; he mentions 6,000 years as intervening 
between Zoroaster and Plato. 20 After Alexander’s victories 


Persia was opened up to Greek inquiries and influences, and 
11 ml inued its own westward flow of ideas and images. Stoicism in 
many ways provided something of a meeting ground for east and 
west. 21 

(Ammon among the tales or motives borrowed from the mages 
were l hose dealing with visits to the underworld or callings-up of 
1 he dead. We have noted Plato’s tale of Er. In the Axiochos we 
hear of a description of the underworld inscribed on ancient 
sKlai found in Apollo’s Delian temple; the author of this fiction 
borrows from a traditional list of mages the name of his Gobryes, 

1 lie revealer of a new eschatology. Klearchos in his book On 
\ /np recalled the interest of Aristotle in the way the “psychagogic 
wand” drew a child’s soul from his body. The child had fallen into 
,1 lethargy (? how induced); and the wand gave him hallucinations. 

( )n waking he recounted all that had apparently happened as if it 
were fact, so that the event seemed a death followed by resurrec- 

I inn. 22 In Plerakleides, Zoroaster was presented as the prototype 
nl (lie initiate who, by the gift of second-sight, penetrated the 
mysteries of the otherworld and was able to testify as to the 
voyages of the soul borne by its aithereal body into the spheres 
beyond. 23 Further tales of resurrections or supernatural visions 
.in- told by Cornelius Labeo or by Loukian. The latter makes his 
Menippos say, “I resolved on going to Babylon to beg the aid of 
m >meone of their mages, the disciples and successors of Zoroaster; 
lor I heard that by certain incantations and rites they open the 
(.lies of blades, lead safely down anyone they choose, and bring 
him back again.” In Babylon Menippos after much trouble 
persuaded a mage, Mithrobarzanes, to help. 

Under the mage’s tuition, he enters on a course of purificatory and 
mystic rites, with a strict dietetic regimen, till he is properly prepared 
lor (he dreadful descent. Embarking on the Euphrates, they sail to a 
certain prescribed place, where they leave their boat, and begin the 
prescribed infernal rites and sacrifices—still faithfully following the 
authority of the poet of the Odyssey —invoking Hekate, the Erinyes, 
titicl all the Daimons. The earth opens and the various infernal sights are 
revealed. Descending, with much difficulty, the travellers secure places 
on hoard Charon’s boat, already overladen with dead men, who have 
mostly come to their end in battle.. . . 24 

II is therefore significant that the one case where the conjuring-up 
of a dead man occurs in the alchemic manuscripts, it is in 
11 mnection with the mage Ostanes. This detail supports the 












I 3 8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

argument that Ostanes in the legend of Bolos stands for a genuine 
mage-master or for Iranian influences in Bolos’ thought. 

We then have abundant evidence that from the 6th century b.c. 
onwards the Greeks were aware of Mazdean ideas; and two major 
thinkers, Herakleitos and Plato, seem to have been deeply 
affected. The Iranian influences which thus flowed into the Greek 
world was however very far from the earlier Zoroastrian bases. 
When Kyros took Babylon, he introduced there many mages, as 
indeed he did all over Mesopotamia. In official rites they took 
precedence over the native clergy of the Chaldaioi. Babylon was at 
this time the centre of the scientific world, leading the way in 
astronomy and mathematics. There the mages learned how to 
interpret eclipses according to astronomical systems. Their supreme 
principle became Time regulating the movements of the sky and 
the life of the world, till the destruction, was divided into millennia, 
each under a planet. Ahura-Mazda, their beneficient God, was 
identified with Bel and other Avestic deities were assimilated to 
the Babylonian pantheon. The magousaioi who carried the new 
form of the Mazdean creed into western Asia Minor spoke 
Aramaic and could doubtless not read the sacred books of 
Zoroastrianism. Mithraism emerged as fusion of Persian and 
Chaldaic cults. 25 The magousaioi long survived in Asia Minor. 
Strabon saw them at work in Kappadokia, where they were 
called pyraithoi, fire-kindlers, with shrines called pyraitheia. 

In the middle of these is an altar, on which is a great amount of ashes 
where the magoi maintain an unextinguished fire. They daily enter and 
carry on their incantation nearly an hour, holding before the fire a 
bundle of rods, and wear round their heads high turbans of felt which 
reach down on each side so as to cover the lips and the sides of the 
cheeks. The same customs are kept in the temples of Anaitis and of 
Omanos. Belonging to these temples are shrines, and a wooden statue of 
manos is carried in procession. These things we have seen ourselves . 26 

Victims were not slit with a knife but beaten to death with a log of 
wood as with a mallet. Pausanias in Lydia, saw the sanctuaries of 
Hypaipa and Hierokaisareia; in each was a chamber with an ash- 
piled altar. “But the colour of these ashes is not the usual colour of 
ashes Entering the chamber, a magician \aner magos\ piles dry 
wood on the altar; he first sets a tiara on his head and then sings 
to some god or other in a foreign tongue unintelligible to Greeks, 
reciting the invocation from a book. So it is without fire that the 
wood must catch and bright flames dart from it.” Pausanias says 


OSTANES 


*59 


In lias seen the marvel. 27 Persian colonies were still there at the 
m i ic of St Basil. 28 One aspect of the later beliefs may be mentioned 
line. Zervan, we learn from Syriac sources, was four-shaped, 
lli rc*c activities or manifestations of Time were personified and 
linked with him to make up the supreme being. It has been 
suggested that the triad or trinity represented three stages of life; 
more likely they stood for three stages of development in a 
philosophic sense like those we found in the formula of Ostanes, 
wilh Zervan himself as the all-inclusive unity within which the 
Mages worked out their conflicts, changes, stabilities. 29 Mani the 
great Babylonian reformer put at the head of the divine hierarchy 
1 1 ic I r ather of Greatness ( Megethos) with Four Faces, his hypostases 
were Light, Power, Wisdom; and Iranian texts translated his 
name as Zervan. In Zervanism, as in Mithraism, Time has for its 
manifestation the Heavens; and all good and evil is the work of 
ilie 17 Zodiacal Signs and the 7 Planets. 30 It is important to note 
dial the mathematical and geometrical sciences had in essence 
been dealing with a timeless world, that it was the ideal of the 
i lassical Greeks in general to get rid of time as a nuisance which 
, 1 used accidents, distortions, confusions disturbing the rule of 
pure abstractions, and that it was only with alchemy that time 
1 cully comes into the picture in the scheme of a triadic set of 
qualitative changes. The affinity with the fused Iranian-Baby- 
!< mian systems is clear. Not that we can look for definite alchemic 
kc hemes among the magousaioi. But the notion of time as consisting 
(»l different phases, all leading to a coherent conclusion, was 
something quite unlike the Greek systems, which either saw a 
1 legeneracy in general or a cyclic movement. It was a precondition 
of the more precise and dynamic formulation of Ostanes-Bolos, 
which gave change a specific pattern of qualities (colours) and 
snw it as issuing in something new. 

W'c may note that the term pyraithes turns up oddly in a mort¬ 
gage contract of Oxyrhynchos, dated 30 March 154 a.d.; both 
parties are there described as priests of “Athena Thoeris the 
Mighty Goddess”, Megiste. Family-names, Psenephthas and 
I lephaistas, show a connection with Ptah and Hephaistos, 
metallurgical gods, so probably the work of fire-lighting was 
hereditary. (The link of Thoeris with Ptah is rare, but a Ptolemaic 
inscription calls her Beloved of Ptah.) We have no way of as¬ 
sociating these fire-kindlers with the pyraithoi of Kappadokia; but 
1 lie similarity of name is interesting. 






OSTANES 



140 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Now if we turn to the alchemical methods attributed to Ostanes 
we find that they do not consist of Egyptian methods of grilling 
or of projection; they take the Persian way of soaking and then of 
heating, cooking. 31 The commentary of Synesios says that 
Ostanes remained true to the metallurgy of his homeland; he used 
only the wet way. 33 This statement agrees with the Utter to 
Uuhppos where Bolos-Demokritos, setting out the doctrines of 
the Persian prophets, also rejects the Egyptian ways. “We don’t do 
it like that,” i.e., not like the Egyptian prophets who have just 
been cited. Synesios also refers to two catalogues in which were 
listed the wet and the dry ways of making gold and silver. 33 We 
find Ostanes linked with Maria the Jewess in the Demokritean 
tradition, according to the Kitab al- Habib: 

Explain to me,” she said, “what you have related about Ostanes who 
spoke of the two coppers, iron, lead, tin, and silver, who has set down a 
particular operation for each of these metals, and who has declared that 
through the operation they become gold.” 

. “ TI ? at « impossible and absolutely false. Only the ignorant believe 
in such a thing. Ostanes said that only to put the ignorant off the scent 
I have taught you that we do not need all the bodies you have just 
mentioned What we want is an unique body, enclosing a unique 
tincture. Always this tints only when it has itself been tinted and it is 
only at that moment it tints. That’s why Demokritos has said- If you 

want to find the composition, you will be able to tint all bodies with 
Crod s aid. 34 


This book derives from the Greek alchemists, and particularly 
rom the Physika and Mystika. The point of the argument is that 
there is only one operation or principle at work in transformation 
Bolos-Demokritos repeated this idea several times, “There is no 
need of these” [the bodies], and so on. 35 

From an alchemic extract in a Syriac MS we learn that Ostanes 
was strong on the need for secrecy: 

As for Ostanes ... [he orders] that no one is to dare to alter his books 
. . . not to dare to make additions or suppressions ... He orders every¬ 
one and lays down that his words are not to be made known to the 
vulgar. He utters terrible oaths against their revelation to anyone 
save to a man worthy of them, a man who seeks the truth and loves’ 
God who owns the fear of God, a man who is full of pity for the poor 
and distant from all evildoing, and who doesn’t use his time as do 
abandoned men and women. 

He has covered up the mysteries with the same care as the apple of 


141 


his eyes; he has forbidden the handing of them over to unworthy 
disciples. 

That is why all philosophers have veiled the language of their 
discourses and have put one sense in place of another, one name in 
place of another, one passage in place of another, one species in place 

< >f another, one vision in place of another. 36 

This attitude went back to Bolos. Synesios wrote to Dioskoros, 
“The philosopher [Demokritos] called things by many names, 
both individually and collectively, so that he might train and 
exercise us and see if we were understanding.” The Stone is 

< ailed “the manynamed and nameless”. We hear: “I speak to you 
men of good sense ... so that we may escape the incurable 
disease of poverty.” Kedrenos says that Demokritos “taught that 
11 is necessary to keep apart from all bad men”. There was indeed a 
widespread feeling that secrecy was in the nature of things; that 
secrecy lay at the beginning and end of quest, discovery, revela- 
1 ion. When an Epicurean accused Plato of giving up demonstrable 
truth for falsehood in the guise of poetic myth, Porphyrios 
replied that myth was natural. “Nature loves to hide herself.” 37 

We have a Utter of Ostanes to Petasios, written in a deliberately 
obscure style. It deals with the making of the Divine Water by 
means of various operations carried out in a glass alembic; then 
an immersion of two mingled mixtures for a day and a night in 
seawater. The product can kill the living and revive the dead. A 
small drop is enough to create light or darkness, to vaporise sea- 
waves or dissipate fire, give lead the look of gold, give sight to the 
blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the dumb. But the 
writer is using allegories and warns the reader as to the real 
bearing of his text by putting alchemic signs (of gold, mercury, 
cinnabar, magnesia, sulphur, silver) above words that do not 
mean those substances. He concludes with the triadic formula. 
Perhaps we can see a trace of Iranian dualism in the stress on 
death and life, dark and light. 38 The geographical area suggested 
by the Letter is not Egyptian, Syrian, or Mesopotamian, but 
Asianic; there is a reference to Mt. Olympus (of Lykia), Libanos, 
and Tauros. The writer seems connected with a part of Asia Minor 
where there were many mages. 39 

Petasios (Isis-gift) here appears as a fellow-disciple of Ostanes or 
a disciple of Demokritos. He is given the authorship of Demo- 
kritean Memoranda, and appears several times in alchemic literature, 
mostly in the work of Olympiodoros, where he is mentioned as 








142 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

one of the imtiated who could speak of the art without too much 
obscurity. A Syriac text, if rightly amended, makes him say that 
meditation is necessary and that love of the art (disinterested 
research) is enough for success. 41 

. ^ Af J MS ^titled The Twelve Chapters bj Ostanes the Philo¬ 
sopher on the Philosopher’s Stone deserves a few words. 

Those who have defended the secret at sword-point and have abstained 

tWro3 “ a """“I 0 " u 1CaSt &0m giving “ the name ™der ^ich 
the crowd knows it: they have hidden it under the veil of enigmas 

Among the epithets they have applied we find: running water' 

eternal water burning fire, fire that thickens, dead earth the hard 

t'Et ten St °m\ the fUgitive ’ tHe fixed ’ the g en erous,’the rapid 

S P r t0 w that Which Struggles ^ th ** 4at which 

s by fire that wluch has been unjustly killed, that which has been 

taken by violence the precious object, the valueless object, the domin¬ 
ant glory, the debased ignominy. 

is to him r that knows “• How glorious for him who 
practices it. How mean for him who ignores it. How infinite for him 
who does not know it. Everyday everywhere we hear the cry: O host of 
seekers take me kill me, then, after killing me, burn me, for I’ll revive' 
after all that and 111 enrich whoever has killed and burned me. 42 

The concept °f imtiation-ordeals and death-rebirth is applied to 
the alchemic bodies in their changes. This analogy is not drawn on 
by any accident; for it was in initiation-experience that men had 
managed to express and develop the idea of movement from one 
level of life to another level qualitatively different—from child¬ 
hood with its mother-world to adulthood with its totally different 
set ot relations and responsibilities, its new lores and under¬ 
standings, and so on. Alchemy above all represents the scientific 
application of these initiation-ideas of a leap from one qualitative 
level of life to another; and that is why the alchemists keep 
returning to the analogy of ordeals, tests, resurrections. And they 
do not do so for any simple reasons of needing an analogy drawn 
rom human life that helps to provide a schemata of stages and 
to make the whole mysterious process of chemical change more 
comprehensible. They do so also because they genuinely feel a 
union between natural and human process; they are affirming a 
vital and organic relationship to nature which the abstract or 
timeless approach, with its emphasis on the alienated intellect of 
men, had denied. 

Further, in the continual paradoxes of glory and infamy. 


OSTANES 


J 43 

itu-.i imable value and despised cheapness, we feel a link with the 
jn ispcl creed that the last shall be first, the despised will turn out 
111 be the chosen. Behind the antitheses lurks an element of social 
ic volt, nurtured to some extent by the feeling that the alchemist is 
. miside all the accepted cultural values and that in his obscurity he 
is \i niggling for a secret of change that can give him mastery over 

I >r< h'css. We find the assertion of the disregarded omnipresence of 

II ic Water, the Stone, as a commonplace in alchemy as it develops. 
Thus, Ibn Umail, after the passage cited where he says that only 
ilie Men in the Egyptian Temples can make effective use of the 
Water, goes, “ ‘O King, is it to be found when sought for?’ 
Marqunas said, ‘Yes, no commodity is sold in the world more 
ih.m it, and everyone requires it, and everyone possesses it, and 
ii is necessary for everyone to have it.’ He means by his statement 
I 'his Water, because the Water is found in every place, in the 
plains and in the mountains, with rich and poor, with strong and 
weak. This is the parable that all the Sages quote about their 
Slone; it is the Water, the Humid Spirit.” It is the essence of life, 
i il development, but only the alchemists seek to grasp and under¬ 
stand its laws, enter consciously into its processes. 

‘I'lie Twelve Chapters go on: 

I )< m’t you see that it fights fire, nothing is more hostile to fire than it is. 
When put in fire, it makes a crackling like congealed water that dis¬ 
integrates by action of cold and snow. 

Know, seekers, that it is a white water which is found buried in the 
r ii rlh of India, a black water which is found buried in the land of Chad- 
jet, a red brilliant water which is found buried in Andalusia. 

It is a liquid that bursts in flame at contact with wood into a violent 
lire; a fire that lights itself at stones in the countries of Persia; a tree 
that grows on the peaks of mountains; a young man born in Egypt; a 
prince come from Andalusia who desires the torture of the seekers. He 
has killed their chiefs and made of some of them the runners of princes. 
The wise men are powerless to fight him. I see no arms against him but 
resignation, no other steed than science, no other shield but intelligence. 

I f i he seeker confronts him with these three weapons and kills him, he’ll 
mine to life again after his death, he’ll lose all power against him and 
will give the seeker the highest power so that he’ll arrive at the goal of 

II is desires. 

And so on. We are reminded of the wood on the Lydian altars 
l hat catches fire of its own accord, and of the experiments (we 
cited one recipe of automatic fire in chapter 3) leading on to 





OSTANES 


145 


144 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

sXlfTT y ° Un8 min b ° m “ Egypt P“ ha P s ■'fen » the 

struggle of a young man against a dragon beside the Nile which 
“ d “T m T,X “ tfKrates- another version „T t iX 

St L C ° f , tl ? e Tweke Cha P ters sh ows that it derives from the 

f a l° d WhC ? alchc ; miC ldeaS WCre set out in elaborate rhetorical 
fashion, with much antithesis and heaping-up of synonyms. But 

and deTrv mT ““ and as the P oints «e strongly 

stress the n^ f’ ^ Clte S ° me m ° re P assa g es th ^ seek to 
aX the P arado ^ caI nat ure of the secret. Needless to say the 
Aristotle here cited is an apocryphal figure: V 

I have heard Aristotle say: “Why do these seekers turn away from the 
stone? It ts however a wellknown thing, characterised, existentpossl 

possibility?” *** qUaIitieS? Where is « found? What is its 

dark e ndht m tt>r ri1 daact ^ e k h Y teIlin 8 you it’s like lightning on a 
g • w can one fail to recognise something white showine- 
up against a black background? The separation isn’t pLful for aZnf 

two US e y °eI” d t0 dlStanCe - ^ ™ bC dubi ° US ^ hi - who ow" 

We are agam reminded of Herakleitos’ lightning flash that guides 
things. There is no direct connection, but ultimately the two 
ST th£ Same - Tbe alohemic moment is that "when the 

fullness Th an§e ’ dev f lo P ment is abruptly realised in its 

ments I,V T ? T*^ purdy repetitive or quantitative move- 

ents, circular and reducible to mechanical formulas, is split by a 
force which exists outside all those formulas; and the vision of the 
man who grasps what is happening has similarly leapt on to a new 
level of comprehension. A guiding principle of qualitative 

DrocesI ThT^ has bcen reali sed inside the unitary 

process. The difference between the alchemic image and that of 

former? 05 “ ^ ** ^ ** krgdy intuklve , whereas the 
rmer has a more precise body of formulations about the nature 
of process associated with it. 

As for the places where one finds this stone, they are the houses shoes 

bazaars roadways, public stores, mosques, baths, towns cities One 
finds it in the earth and in the sea. .ns, cities. Une 

As to its possibility. I’ll state that it is a stone bound ud in a stone a 
stone fitted into a stone, a stone englobed in a stone. The philosophers 


have slicd tears on this stone, and when they’ve flooded it, its darkness 
Iui. disappeared, its sombre colour has been lightened, it has appeared 
lilu- a rare pearl. Its possession has been assured and the seekers 
have been amazed. 

flu- point here is that there is nothing in the quest that carries the 
(a cker into strange and remote aspects of life or matter. The 
processes of transformation are going on all the while, every¬ 
where, all round one. The difficulty is not to track them out, but to 

I mde i sland them. The mystery lies in the transformation itself, not 
In some situation or material cut away from common life. The 
le.irs of the sages are the divine water of transformation, which 

II -.ides in human beings as much as in any metals or minerals, any 
herbs or flowers, any stars or planets. The reference to a stone-in- 
ihe stone is then not to magic stones like the aetites , or eaglestone, 
about which may strange things were said: for instance that “it 
has inside itself another stone as if pregnant,” and so has various 
uses aiding a woman’s pregnancy and preventing abortion. 44 The 
•ir/lle. r is merely a peculiar instance of birth-powers concentrated 
in a stone. What the alchemists were talking about was an 
omnipresent formative movement, which is shared by both men 
.11 id 1 he organic and inorganic objects of nature. 

The Sage has said, In the following words Aristotle has indicated the 
.lone’s qualities and given a description of it. “It is a Lion reared in a 
forest. A man has wanted to make use of it as a steed by putting on it 
.-i 1 K1 lc and bridle. Vainly he has tried; he cannot succeed. He has then 
hud recourse to a shrewder strategem, which has permitted him to keep 
It in stronger bonds, and so has managed in saddling and bridling it. 

I'lien he has tamed it with a whip, giving it grievous blows. Later, 
he lets it loose from the bonds and makes it walk along like a degraded 

I icing, so that anyone would say it had never been wild for a single day.” 
The Stone is the Lion; the Bonds are the Preparations—that is, the 
matters I’ll discuss in the next chapter. The Whip is the Fire. What do 
you say, seeker, of this so-clear description. 

I lore is another account given by the Sage. “What then are men 

I I linking of? They talk of the stone but get nothing out of it. They 
w rap it up, they use it as salves for dealing with scab that covers the 
body and they draw no advantage from it. They tread it underfoot and 
yd never get hold of it.” 

Another Sage has said, “I’ve lived now forty years and I’ve never 
■ pent a single day without seeing the Stone day and night so well that I 
was fearing nobody could help seeing it too. I then used yet more 
enigmatic expressions than those I’d used at first and I have increased 









146 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 
the Obscurity of the phrases out of fear that their sense was already too 

Know then that the authors in their books have used a great number 

IeaYin°; 

far as I know, the ones best known in the worldHt is called- lion’ 
arsenic! tutty,’ foam“of 

ulac tirac tare, dumb man, oppressor, submitted [being] magnet fat’ 
V^s^; W ’ ^ 

We see here a contradiction. The alchemists insist on the 

whkh S the natUre ° f 4 thelf qUCSt and itS g ° aI ’ and ° n the wa y in 
talktf ' mCd pr ° Cesses are P art of common life. They 
v of curing poverty; they want their science to enter into life 

ITZ Tcosf h 7 t thCy tfCat thdf ICaming aS some thing > that 
all costs be kept among a few dedicated seekers and 

ever unveiled to the masses. We shall later consider the full 
reasons for this position, but here we may note one point The 
alchemy were not concerned with producing gold forfeit own 
benefit, even if a practioner now and then tried to cash in on his 
res and impress a ruler (Gaius or Anastasios). They felt them¬ 
selves forever trembling on the innermost secret £ universal 
p ocess, and they wanted to clarify and stabilise their grasp of this 
sec e t before they worked out the applications of theirknowldge 
They were convinced that at the stage in which thev found 
themselves the divulging of their methods would mean their 

greeTSiT'self “ ^ ^ t0 find S ° ld for reasons of 

greed and self-aggrandisement; and the deeper motives of the 

quest the search for pure knowledge and insight into process 

w h a hope of some kind of ultimate elixir and control of nature 

dissl°ated m w ltSCl 2rr Uld bC compromised > corrupted, and 

aware of ^ T ' f the ? Wefe also onI P 

aware of the gap between their actual knowledge and the high 

claims they made, between the actual products of their expefk 

Soduced Tb e tm ? lntUiti ° ns and momentary certainties they 
produced. They felt that to make their proceedings public would 

incambk 7 t0 ridicuIe ‘ ^ir deep convictions, still 

incapable of clear and direct proof, would be mocked-at and they 


OSTANES 147 

ilu msclves would lose their sustaining faith. I do not mean that 
11 icy (bought quite in these terms but that something of this sort 
nl c< inflict went on in their minds and emotions. 

In (lie same manuscript as the Twelve Chapters is another, The 
I infil: of Thirty Chapters , in which we gain a picture of the ordeal of 
( ):.lanes himself. 

When 1 realised that love of the Great Work had fallen into my heart 
.Hid that the preoccupations I felt about it had chased sleep from my 
ryes, that they prevented me from eating and drinking so that my body 
was wasting away and my appearance was bad, I gave myself up to 
prayer and fasting. I begged God to drive out the miseries and cares 
dial had taken hold of my heart, and put an end to the perplexed 
si I nation in which I found myself. 

While I lay asleep on my couch, a being appeared to me in a dream 
,1111 1 told me, “Rise up and understand what I am going to show you.” 

I rose up and went off with this person [Hermes Trismegistos?]. Soon 
we arrived before Seven Gates so fine that I had never seen the like. 
"I I ere,” my guide said to me, “are found the treasures of the science 
you seek.” 

“Thank you,” I replied. “Now guide me so that I may penetrate into 
lli'cse dwellings where you say are found the treasures of the universe.” 

“You will never penetrate there,” he answered, “unless you have in 
your power the keys of those doors. But come with me. I’ll show you 
l he keys of those doors .” 46 

Ihc Seven Doors are the seven planetary metals conceived as 
essential steps in the construction of matter; they are also the 
seven stages of the Mithraic initiate and the seven planet-gates 
nl the ascending soul. The imagery goes back to the ancient 
Mesopotamian ritual-myth of the goddess Ishtar coming down to 
die underworld and discarding a veil at each gate; the naked 
im iddess at the end is truth in its pure revelation. 

(Istanes goes on with his guide and comes on an animal such 
.is he’d never seen the like. It had vulture-wings, elephant-head, 
dragon-tail, and each of the three parts was trying to devour the 
< ilhcr. 

When I saw it, I was filled with a keen terror and changed colour. My 
guide, seeing my condition, said, “Go up to this animal and tell it: In 
die name of mighty God, give me the keys of the doors of wisdom.” 

Then, though full of terror and dread, I made my way to this animal 
ami said to him the prescribed words. He handed me the keys. I 
1 ipened the gates and arrived at the last one. I found myself confronting 









OSTANES 


149 


148 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

a plaque with a shining and multicoloured aspect. When I looked at it, 
I couldn’t possibly sustain the lustre. 

The monster is the triadic formula, or rather the metals under- 
going the ordeal-transformation in its terms. (This symbolic fact 
obscures the difficulty of wings or a tail preying on a head.) The 
bright plaque is the ultimate unity in which all colours are merged; 
the philosopher’s stone which in medieval days was called both 
peacock and rainbow. Now in the narrative we again meet the 
magical number seven; for the plaque was inscribed in seven 
tongues. The seven tongues are another seven gates through 
which the goal of gnosis can be reached. The motive was probably 
introduced because of the tradition, found in Syriac texts, that 
Zoroaster produced the Avesta in seven tongues; the list varies 
but seems to be meant to refer to the seven regions or climates of 
the earth. Perhaps the seven versions of the Avesta in turn were 
invented as a counterblast to the propaganda of the prophet Mani, 
who had boasted that he himself wrote his scriptures while Jesus 
and Zoroaster had to get others to do it for them. Mani had also 
ordered a translation of his works in seven tongues. An Arab 
evangel of Christ’s infancy says, “She, [Mary will bring forth], 
without breaking the seal of her virginity and .. . her good news 
in the seven climates of the earth.” 47 

The first inscription was in Egyptian and Ostanes read it. We 
meet the triadic principle applied to the individual and his 
struggles towards a deepened consciousness; we are reminded of 
Mani’s trinity of Light, Power, Wisdom. 

I am going to set out for you the allegory of the body, the vital spirit, 
and the soul [i.e. soma, pnenma, psyche]. Study it with your reason and 
your intelligence, and, if you give it all your attention, you will be 
set well on your way to accomplish each work and to learn all that is 
hidden. 

Body, soul, and spirit are like lamp, oil, and wick. Just as the wick 
can’t serve a lamp without oil, so the spirit cannot be of use in a body 
without soul. The vital spirit of the body is the blood; the soul its 
breath which spreads itself out in blood and heart right up to the 
extremities of the body and this last, you know, consists of flesh, 
blood, sinews. 

Know that if you lodge the spirit alone in the body without bringing 
the soul in, the body would have no source of light; it would be as if 
wrapt in darkness. When you make the soul penetrate it, the body finds 
affinity with it, is purified and takes on a handsome aspect. 


Crasp well what I’m going to tell you, for it’s an important matter 
,1111 1 nobody could be led to the hidden science of which I speak if he did 
in ii know this chapter. Don’t you see that fire possesses a brightness, of 
1 ,i y s and of lustre. If you sprinkle it with water, the brightness and the 
lustre vanish and it becomes darkness after having been brightness. 

I f you take fire and water, and by working as we set out in the present 
hook you succeed in mingling and combining them, neither of the two 
will be able to hurt the other any more and their union will give twice 
in much brightness and rays as when they were in their primitive state. 

I hat is how you must begin; for that’s the way your predecessors 
began. At the outset the primitive elements were fire and water. It’s by 
coupling water and fire, by combining them, that are formed numerous 
1 11 ulies, trees and stones. The right course is then to proceed by analogy, 
,11 ling for the final science in conformity with the method followed in 

I lie primitive science. 

Pneuma is that in every man which links his body-soul with the 
living universe. Soul is the individual life activating the body and 
enabling it through the pnenma to achieve universality. The lamp- 
metaphor, dealing with separated things, is not very illuminating 
lor a matter of process; but its general implications show how 
the alchemist connected the body-soul-spirit relationship with the 

II iadic formula. Soul penetrated body like the more active of the 
two chemical substances in an experiment of alchemic change; it 
brought about the existence of a third and higher substance, 
pnenma, which put the body-soul mixture into a new and active 
relationship to the cosmos. In short, human life was a perpetual 
alchemic process by which the dynamic body-soul union sparked 
oil' the vital link with the various fields of force surrounding the 
individual. The problem for the alchemist was to grasp the full 
nature of the life-process as revealed in himself and in all men, and 
then to apply and realise its pattern in other fields. 

There are two further points. First, we may note the similar 
notion of pneuma and souls in the passage from the Kore Kosmou 
(| noted in our first chapter, where, in an idiom better suited to a 
philosophy of process, we meet the view of the soul-stuff or 
rather soul-activity, psychosis, as produced chemically (that is, by a 
l ransformative process) out of the universal forces or pneumata. 
Since th &psychai are individual souls, the assumption is that they 
link body and pneuma. Secondly, the Ostanes-passage states water 
and fire as the primitive elements: a dualistic view that looks 
towards Iran and the mages. In another (Latin-Arab) text Ostanes 









OSTANES 


150 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

says that there are four elements, but “of these water and fire 
are the roots, radices. Earth and air are composed out of them.” 
And he tells Maria, ‘ Our water has our earth remaining in it. It 
is great, lucid and pure; for out of the thickening of water is 
earth created.” 18 

Ostanes looks again at the shining plaque and finds that the 
second inscription is written in Persian. It runs: 

The Land of Misr [Egypt] is superior to all other cities and towns on 
account of the wisdom and knowledge of all things that God has 
bestowed on its inhabitants. However the folk of Misr, as well as those 
of the rest of the world, have need of the inhabitants of Persia and cannot 
succeed in any of their works without the aid they draw from this last 
country. Don’t you see that all the philosophers who have devoted 
themselves to the Science have addressed themselves to persons of 
Persia whom they have adopted as brothers. 

Then it goes on to give in detail a letter sent by someone asking 
the Persians to send a man able to translate a book that has been 
found. We shall find the same motive in the letters of Pibechios 
soon to be considered. The third inscription was in Indian. This 
claims in turn that the Hindus from earliest times have had the 
superiority over other men. The sun is nearer to them, hence “the 
vigour of nature in our land. If we had not need of Persia we’d 
be able to achieve the entire work with only what comes from 
our soil and our seas.” A tale is added about a sage sending to 
India for the urine of a white elephant as sort of panacea. The 
rest of the inscriptions, we are told, were effaced by time, so we 
don t hear of the other four nationalities. 

However, Ostanes’ adventures were not yet over. 

While I was examining the part I hadn’t managed to decipher in this 
plaque, I heard a strong voice crying out to me, “Man, get away from 
here before all the Gates are shut; for the moment of closure is come.” 

Trembling all over and afraid it was too late to leave, I went out. 
When I had passed through all the gates, I met an old man of un¬ 
paralleled beauty. “Approach,” he told me, “man whose heart is 
thirsty for this science. I am going to make you understand many thin g.; 
that have seemed obscure to you, and explain what remains hidden.” 

I approached the old man, who then took my hand and raised his 
own towards the heaven, swearing by the God of the Heaven that I 
possessed the whole science and that all the secrets of wisdom were in 
me. I praised God who had showed me all that and who had made all 
the science’s secrets manifest to me. 


H 1 

While I was in this state, the three-bodied animal, whose parts 
devoured one another, cried out in a strong voice, “All the science can 
be perfected only by me, and it is in me that is found the key of the 
Reicnce. He who wants to accomplish the work in its perfection, let him 
recognise my true power and he will lack nothing of what the 
philosophers have said about the work.” 

11 caring these words, the old man said to me, “Man, go and find that 
animal, give him an intelligence in place of yours, a vital spirit in place 
(if yours, a life in place of yours; then he’ll submit to you and give you 
all you need.” 

As I wondered how I could give anyone an intelligence in place of 
mine, a vital spirit in place of mine, an existence in place of mine, the 
old man said, “Take the body that is like your own, take from it what I 
have just told you, and hand it over to him.” 

1 did as the old man bade me, and I acquired then the whole science, 
as complete as that described by Hermes. 

We see that the alchemist has to be able to identify himself with 
1 lie triadic beast, the formula of transformation or development. 

I le must realise the unity of man and nature—not as a general 
idea, but by a concentration of his entire mind, body, and spirit 
on the work he is doing, so that he truly feels himself disinte¬ 
grating, tom apart and put together, reborn in a new form. This 
identification of the scientist-artisan with the processes he is 
producing, is perhaps the hardest aspect of alchemy for anyone 
nowadays to understand or enter into. To men in whom the 
alienation of the intellect from the world of nature has been 
carried very much further than among classical Greek thinkers, 
die whole thing seems fantastic and overstressed, unreal. But in 
I act it was passionately real, and in my opinion it held an element 
of truth which we must strive to grasp and recapture if our 
science is to measure up to the full demands of reality. Of this 
point I shall have more to say later. 

Who was the old man? It has been suggested that he was 
Agathodaimon, of whom we shall hear more later; but the 
reference to Hermes (Trismegistos) at the end makes it more 
likely that he was Hermes himself. In that case the guide at the 
beginning of the vision must be someone else. The vision is an 
odd document which on the whole inclines towards making the 
Persians the true centre of alchemic lore, yet shows traces of a 
version in which homage was paid to Egypt and its great seer 
I Iermes-Thoth. 19 

The link of Ostanes with Demokritos and with Egypt is again 









152 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

brought out in the Shaw ah id of Ar-Razi, which quotes Apollonios 
of Tyana as saying that when Demokritos accompanied Ostanes 
to Egypt they found alchemy there to be based on the theory of 
Hermes that it all proceeds from the One Thing. The Egyptians 
were using as their main material Pigbrain on account of its 
likeness to the human brain. The visitors held that eggs had the 
same essential nature as brains and produced the same results; 
and the Egyptian sages accepted this viewpoint despite the 
difficulties in the alchemical manipulation of eggs. The resulting 
aphorism (“He who acquires the Philosopher’s Egg must succeed, 
for it is the Tincture and is found in every house”) seems based 
on the Hermetic theory, though Hermes had laid down that only 
substances of mineral origin were to be used in experiments; 
nothing organic. Ar-Razi commented that by the Philosopher’s 
Egg the Hair was meant, and that, as eggs could be got at a 
trifling price, the saying of Demokritos (about a Stone that is 
not a Stone) was confirmed. It has been suggested that the use of 
e Sgs by Demokritos—Ostanes implied a school which had dis¬ 
covered the chemical activity of Sal-Ammoniac, a reagent that 
could be made by the distillation of organic substances and 
would thus suggest the use of such substances in place of minerals 
in alchemy. More of this later. 50 Before we pass on, we may look 
at another passage in the MS which holds the Twelve Chapters 
which throws further light on the account of Ostanes’ initiation! 
(The initiation-rite of the alchemist, we must remember, was a 

symbolising of the alchemic process itself.) The manuscript is 
fragmentary. 

I adjure you, in the name of the immortal gods and in the name of the 
God of gods, by the power .. . unfathomable in itself, that warms by its 
fire, that turns and circles before the figure of the ineffable image. 

It is not to the son nor to the brother ... nor to the false friend nor 
to the [faithless] confident of the secret that one should reveal these 
books I have written for the love of God: above all that who gold and 
si ver. You must know also this: I have prayed the immortal gods not to 
let my words penetrate the ears of the foolish. As for adepts [who have 
betrayed the] mystery, they must not even see one of my books .. . Do 
not be mad enough to dare to claim the transmission of the tradition to 
them, for the book is guarded by God ... [It treats] of the art and its 
operations, but the art. . . to God who . . . 

... thus it has been offered to him [who deserves it]. His master gives 
it to him and makes him know . . . Thus you are very happy ... it is 
reserved for those worthy. . . The art is not given to every man . . . 


OSTANES 


M3 


I lc pointed out the road with his staff. . . He questioned me and 
wanted to learn where I claimed to be going. I persuaded him to be my 
master and direct me in the way that leads to the hidden treasures. He 
understood my secret desire.. . He took thus and pointed with his 
r.ialF. . . I persuaded him to be my master and direct me in the way that 
leads [to the hidden treasures]. He understood my wish, but he feared 
die immortal gods and did not wish to travel with me ... I promised 
. . . that I’d give him the double . . . we arrived thus at the hidden 
treasures. He made me a sign with his hand [to offer] on my part the 
sacrifice that the gods demand. I carried out his desire and gave soul for 
soul and body for body. But even so there was no agreement as to 
holding up the fast—and I lost my life . . . Then I stayed 40 [days] . . . 
A second god opened for me [the dwelling place of] the sages, covered 
witli a mound of herbs and dew, clothing of body and soul. I knocked 
after having stayed 4 times 40 days before each door. Then I went in 
through the door . . . after having offered many and suitable gifts. . . . B1 

This passage, multilated as it is, helps to fill out the picture of 
()stanes’ ordeals, which are here described as a death. The 
initiate surrenders his double, his other self. All sacrifice has an 
aspect of killing another creature so as to ensure one’s own life; 
t he victim is the image of the killer, who rescues his own life by 
offering up that of another. (This had its literal truth since the 
victim was in part eaten by the sacrificer, in part by the gods.) 
Hut this aspect came up more sharply and consciously in the 
Semitic world than anywhere else. The cuneiform tablets plainly 
slate the idea of the victim as a substitute for someone threatened 
I >y death; Porphyrios attributes the same idea to the Carthaginians; 
and a series of dedications in Africa to Saturn (Baal) deal with the 
night-offering of a lamb, “soul for soul, blood for blood, life for 
life”. In the African sacrifices it is uncertain whether the lamb 
lakes the place of a child, who had previously been sacrificed, or 
whether it is merely a question of a substitute of lamb for sacri- 
licer. 52 The whole concept of the redemption of worshipper by a 
dying god represents the system on a higher level, especially 
when the god is imaged in animal form (Dionysos as bull, Christ 
as lamb) and is eaten in some direct or symbolic meal of com¬ 
munion. Here the self-sacrifice of the initiate takes up the redemp¬ 
tion-theme but applies it to the death-rebirth of the metals, 
which is also the death-rebirth of the alchemist. “The double” 
is a strange phrase. Perhaps it means that the initiate offers up his 
previous self, which otherwise would hang on and accompany 
the new self; perhaps it means that the metals, realised in their 






OSTANES 


155 


154 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

alchemic values, become a second self, which the initiate offers 
up by driving them through the triadic process of qualitative 
change. In any event the initiate is assumed to reach a new unity 
of self, in which all his facilities, thoughts, and emotions are 
concentrated on, and dedicated to, the Great Work. 

Finally we may note the Syriac texts of letters supposed to have 
been exchanged between Pebechios and Osron, a Persian, which 
fill out what the plaque-inscription said about requests for 
translations from Persian wise-men, and which thus seem part of 

the propaganda on behalf of Persia as the great source of alchemic 
lore. 

Pebechios humblest of philosophers to Osron, greeting. I have found 
m Egypt the divine and hidden Books of Ostanes, written in Persian 
script, and I cannot make them out. I beg you then to judge me worthy 
of your grace and send me the Persian Letters so that I may decipher 
the hidden words set down in these books. For I have a great passion 
and a lively desire to gain this knowledge. 

I ask then the favour of being rated worthy to receive without 
jealousy this man’s doctrine, who possessed the spirit of God, so that I 
can copy the writings composed in Egypt and reveal those composed 
in Persian. I ask for those Letters to be sent to me so as to be made 
available to all the world. As soon as I have succeeded in explaining 
these books, 1 11 send you back again the tablet that I’m asking of you 
Answer quickly before death [?word effaced] comes on me. 53 

Osron, the humblest of the mages,” sends his reply: 

When I got your letters I felt a great joy and I received a great honour 
since you judged me worthy of being singled out from among the 
mages my colleagues. [He sends on the requested Letters and begs to be 
sent the revelation.] For old age has seized on me and I fear that the 
weakening of intellect which is a malady of the spirit is coming on me- 
or rather indeed an attack that may bring disorder on my spirit and I may 
cease from being worthy of the divine spirit. I salute you all, copyists 

°m t ^ e i ?r ine B °° kS ° f ° stanes > and above all [? word lost] you, the 
chief. Pebechios, as well as those who receive your teaching. 

Pebechios answers, after many compliments: 

I have opened the book and have found there the whole art of astrology 
astronomy, philosophy, philology [fine literature], magism, mysteries 
and sacrifices; finally, that art so dreaded by many persons and so 
necessary, that of working gold. This art was written down [words 


|. All this book was under the protection of God’s name; and the 
whole book treated of minerals, purples, and divine tinctures of precious 
niones. I have transcribed it by means [word lost?] of Egyptian and 
(. i cck writings , and I have thus rendered it clear for all the world. I 
have transcribed the Seven Scriptures such as I have found them. 

I have found a divine book, more precious than all the others. With 
justice the divine Ostanes called it The Croivrr, for it is the Crown of all 
the Gods, the Master of Books. It has been named Sun [Gold] and 
nothing is more excellent, except God. In transcribing, in reading, and 
in acquiring the earthly [virtues ?] embedded among the things written, 

I was astounded to find words free of all envy; to see how complete 
1 1 icy were, how rational and pure; how Ostanes was animated with 
(hid’s spirit, he who, bring a universal writer and a doctor, did not 
disdain the role of disciple, although all these sciences in reality came 
I mm him [word lost ?]. 

As for me I have forced myself to write according to his doctrine. My 
mini has got the profit, but my body is worn out with the labour 
needed to make the divine words emerge from this gift put at our 
disposal. 

Nnic the lack-of-jealousy motive again. Pebechios (hawk) was a 
1 iimmon Egyptian name; but our Pebechios here is no doubt the 
man who appears in the alchemic lists and in a magic papyrus. 64 
The division of the material (minerals, purples, stone-tinctures) 
suggests the Physika and Mystika. The theme of a Persian book 
done into Greek appears again in the Letter of Demokritos to 
I .rnkippos, where also the invention of alchemy is attributed to 
1 he Kings of Egypt. 65 The Seven Scriptures, we saw, was a 
Zoroastrian motive—do we see the popularity of this number in 
such a context, in the name Septmgint or Seventy given to the version 
ol the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandreia, though the story 
actually ran that six elders were sent from each of the twelve 
1 lilies of Israel, that is, seventy-two men, who worked for 
•.cventy-two days? 56 

Next comes a fragmentary passage where Osron speaks of 365 
sections of some work, which perhaps Hermes confided to the 
Kings of Egypt and on which his disciples wrote commentaries. 
In these latter they explained the 365 days of the year “plus the 
extra day added to complete time”. 

They explained what was written on the priestly stelai of Hermes, on 
each of these stelai. They read there the six days and showed the true art 
1111 be King. The King, after rejoicing at the fulfilment of his desire and 
giving thanks, constructed secret places in Egypt. He inscribed the 















OSTANES 


157 


156 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

divine and unutterable art of Seven tables [or stelai] as much with his 
own hand as with those of the philosophers; then he placed them in the 
secret place. He set at the end of this place Seven Gates: a gate of lead a 
gate of electrum, a gate of iron. For the Sun that lights up the universe 
he established a gate of gold; for Kronos [read Aphrodite], a gate of 
copper; for Hermes, a gate of tin; and for the Moon, a gate of silver. 

. [Marginal note] In a manuscript we have found: a gate of lead which 
is Kronos; a gate of electron which is an alloy, which is Zeus; a gate of 
iron, which is Ares; a gate of gold, which is the Sun; a gate of copper 
which is Aphrodite; a gate of tin, which is Hermes; and a gate of 
silver, which is the Moon. 

Here once again we have the seven steps, the seven planets, though 
the metals do not correspond exactly with the Mithraic system. 
But there was often a divergence in particular links. A Paris MS 
says, for instance, “Zeus, tin; the Persians do not say this, but 
iargyros [in Hebrew letters]; Plermes.. . mercury [hydrargyros\■ 
The Persians [say] tin.” 57 The margin-writer has sought to fill the' 
gaps in our text, which goes on mention the initiation-beast, this 
time in the form of a drawing: 

With all the lustre and force (two lines lost) ... he drew a dragon 
eating its tail [the ouroboros] ... images and artworks of a symbolic 
character... He advised against opening the door of the secrets to 
anyone not of good birth, anyone uninstructed; but thought it right to 
keep the divine mysteries for the master’s adepts. It was thus the priests 
sealed all the mysteries; then each of them went home to his own land. 58 

Of good birth presumably means: born of the families to whom 
the lore was restricted. We may compare the statement in the 
Koiranides : “Hermes the Thricegreat God took the gift which he 
handed on to all men of mind ( noetikoi ). Do not hand it on to men 
without right feeling (agnomones, senseless).” 59 

What then do we make of Ostanes as an historical figure, the 
teacher of Bolos-Demokritos ? He certainly stands for the Iranian 
or magian tradition of alchemy, and yet we find him located in 
Egypt. He comes there with Demokritos, or he is working there. 
His deepest secret, the triadic formula, is found hidden in an 
Egyptian holy-of-holies. One list of names calls him an initiate of 
Egypt. Demokritos finds his secret, and Pebechios writes to 
Persia for the clues to translate his books. His letter to Petasios, 
however, clearly gives Asia Minor, the regions where the mages 
were thickly settled, as the provenance of the writer. 


When we consider how strong is the magian tradition in the 
alchemic and botanical lore attributed to him, we feel that these 
regions of Asia Minor were the most likely source of his doctrines. 

11 is Persian line is stressed by Zosimos, who says that his master 
was Sophar the Persian, and who calls Ostanes himself a Mede. 60 
As it seems possible that Ostanes was a name borne by many 
mages, perhaps a traditional magian name or title, there is no 
reason why an Ostanes may not have been the author of the works 

I hat went under his name. That the library at Alexandreia under 

I I ic Ptolemies acquired large numbers of magian books, presum- 
ably many of them from Asia Minor or from more inland areas 
such as that of Harran, is attested by the peripatetic philosopher 
I lermippos. He says that it had many works ascribed to Zoroaster, 
probably at least 800 rolls (2,000,000 fines); and in addition there 
would have been many Greek works dealing with magian 
doctrines. 61 It would seem than in the 3rd and 2nd centuries b.c. 
.11 Alexandreia there went on a considerable fusion of Greek and 
I ranian thought. This fusion was expressed by bringing together 
die two great figures of Zoroaster the Persian and Hermes- 
Thoth the Egyptian in a large new corpus of magical recipes and 
ideas, above all in an endless series of pantheist correspondences 
bet ween men, animals, plants, stones, stars and planets. We have 
seen how Hermes-Thoth haunts the initiation passage-rite of 
()stanes, who played his part in the fusion of the two cultures as a 
lesser figure than Zoroaster, but one who loomed larger in the 
alchemic field. By about a.d. 300, Zosimos the alchemist saw a 
conflict between the positions of Zoroaster and Hermes, but this 
was no doubt the result of the increasing pressure of the problem 
of astrology which seemed to tie all fives down in a rigid deter¬ 
minism. Zoroaster, he said, agreed with Hermes that men could 
raise themselves above fatality, but he took the way of magic; 

I lermes on the other hand took the way of self-knowledge. 62 
But around 200 b.c. this issue of freewill against determinism had 
not yet matured and there must have been many harmonious 
minglings of Graeco-Egyptian and Asianic-Syrian ideas, especially 
in the field of sympathies and correspondences of one thing with 
another. Stoicism with its concept of pneuma was to preside 
ultimately over such cultural developments. 

This seems the period and the intellectual climate best suited 
for the finking of Ostanes and Bolos-Demokritos. The tensions 
which later brought about rivalries between the different schools 








15B ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

are quieted, and no national jealousies are aroused by the linking 
of Ostanes and Demokritos or by the location of the great 
secret in Egyptian shrines. Demokritos, the Greek, who stands 
between Egyptian and Iranian, is ready to take over the magian 
emphasis on fire and on penetrative processes. 

It is possible that Bolos dramatised the union of cultures by 
telling stories of Ostanes as a visitor or resident in Egypt and by 
linking him with Demokritos, the classical philosopher who had 
been recognised as the pathfinder, the pioneer, in searching for the 
magian doctrines for stimulation or illumination. It is possible that 
magian scholars, surrounded with much mysterious aura, had come 
to Egypt and discussed things with him, and that they used the name 
of Ostanes, as the name of one or more of them, or as the name 
of a revered master who had originated their doctrines. The 
nearest we can get to what seem the facts is to assume that around 
200 b.c. the fusion of Iranian and Greek-Egyptian ideas in Bolos of 
Mendes brought about the legends of Demokritos collaborating 
with Ostanes—legends that no doubt took various forms, one of 
which we have in the story of the opening pillar and the triadic 
formula. 


8 

Hermes Trismegistos 


Wi. have seen how Hermes appears in a shadowy way as the 
I nl her of all knowledge, including alchemy. Psellos, echoing 
what seems a genuinely old tradition, states that he taught the 
science before Ostanes and Pebechios, and wrote a book on it 
named Kleida (which seems connected with the title Kids, Key, 
given to several such works). He adds, “Anoubis alone interpreted 
| / understood] his Seven Books, Heptabiblon, and not even he 
, learly.” 1 Several mythical or divine persons of Egypt thus come 
up among the alchemists, Hermes-Thoth, Isis, Anoubis, Aga- 
tliodaimon. 

I lermes is a highly important figure, not only in alchemy, but 
in almost all the fields where revelation was involved—and as we 
have seen, those fields at this time covered a very large part of 
i nil ure. The quest for the truth in a breaking-down society gained 
an ever-greater urgency, while in general losing faith in unaided 
human efforts. Not only in matters of religion but in those of 
a I most any field of inquiry, whether astrology, alchemy, physiology, 
botany, iatromathematics (medicine linked with astrology), or 
even rhetoric, the seeker turned despairingly to the spiritworld. 

’Thus Aristeides records that the god Asklepios advised him in 
dreams, not only about remedies for his illnesses, but also about 
procedures in rhetoric. The Jew who composed The Wisdom of 
Solomon probably lived in Alexandreia; he was strongly influenced 
by Greek Hellenistic thought; and he thus described what he 
owed to his God: 

hi his hand are both we and our words; all understanding, and all 
acquaintance with divers crafts. For himself gave me an unerring know¬ 
ledge of the things that are, to know the constitution of the world, and 
I lie operation of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of 
limes, the alternations of the solstices and the change of seasons, the 
i bruits of years and the positions of stars; the natures of living 


-» 










HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


l6o ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

creatures and the ragings of wild beasts, the violences of winds and the 
thoughts of men, the diversities of plants and the virtues of roots; all 
things that are either secret or manifest I learned . . , 2 

The old oracles had little or nothing to say on things that worried 
men apart from immediate practical matters; only the Klarian 
Apollo had had anything to reveal on the question of the divine 
essence, and the thaumaturge Julian forged documents in imita¬ 
tion. Men wanted a more direct form of contact, more personal 
and more complete. 3 It was their duty to start off on the quest for 
the revelation of reality: 

There was indeed something worthy of contemplation and of emotional 
agitation, the beauty of the heavens with its representation of the god 
still unknown, the solemnity of night linked with a light weaker than 
the sun s, but still alive, and the other mysteries moving each in its 
turn across the sky, giving order and growth according to the motions 
and regulated periods of time by certain secret emissions \aporrhoiai\ to 
the totality of things here below. 

And so fear kept on always increasing, there were indescribable 
seekings. And as long as the artisan [technites\ of the universe persisted 
in his denial, ignorance enwrapped the whole world. But when he had 
decided to reveal himself such as he is, he inspired in gods outbursts of 
love, and he spread more generously in their intelligences the light that 
he held in his breasts, so that they had first of all the desire to seek him 

°Kos» )4 WlU t0 find him ’ then als ° the P ower of succeeding. ('Rare 

The Hermetic writings give us the revelation of the supreme 
Mind or Nous, of Hermes-Thoth, or of a disciple of Hermes: Tat, 
Asklepios, Ammon. The frame, as we have seen, is often that of a 
dream. 5 Hermes is thus the great source of revelation: 

Hermes saw the totality of things. Having seen, he understood. Having 
understood, he had the power to reveal and show. And indeed what he 
knew, he wrote down. What he wrote, he mostly hid away, keeping 
si ence rather than speaking out, so that every generation on coming 
into the world had to seek out these things. (K.K.) e 

The term for writing down here is “engraved”. He engraved his 
lore, we have seen, on stelai and tables. And so he was taken as 
the inventor of writing. Plato knew this tradition well. 

Some god or divine man, who in the Egyptian legend is said to be 
Theuth, observing that the human voice was infinite, first distinguished 


161 

in ihe infinity a certain number of vowels, then the other letters which 
h,ul sounds, but were not pure vowels [i.e. the semi-vowels]; these too 
i Hist in a definite number; and lastly he distinguished a third class of 
letters, which we now call mutes, without voice or sound, and divided 
tlicsc up, and likewise the two other classes of vowels and semi¬ 
vowels, into the individual sounds . . . [Finally] he assigned them all to a 
single art. 

Sol< rates also tells a story he heard at Naukratis about one of the 
undent gods of Egypt, whose sacred bird was the ibis, Theuth. 
"I le it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry 
and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of 
all, letters.” The king at that time, the god Thamos, lived at 
Thebes. Theuth came to him and showed his inventions. Thamos 
liked some and disapproved of others. When they came to letters, 
Theuth said it would make the Egyptians wiser, with better 
memories. Thamos replied that an inventor was not always the 
best judge of his inventions; as for letters, they would bring 
.1 1 » ait the disuse of memories. “Men will trust themselves to the 
external written characters and not remember of themselves.” 
I ,otters were “a pharmakon [drug, remedy, spell], not of memory, 
bui of reminding; and you offer men the appearance of wisdom, 
not true wisdom. They will read many things without instruction, 
and will thus seem to know how many things, when they are 
mostly ignorant and tiresome company—not being wise but only 



16. Thoth in Ibis-form with Shu and Tefnut as lions 










HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


162 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

have the show of it.” At the end of Sokrates’ parable, Phaidros 
says. Yes, Sokrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt or of 
any other country.” 7 

Diodoros sets out the general Hellenistic view: 

According to them [the Egyptians], it was by Hermes that the common 
language of mankind was first further articulated and many objects 
still nameless got an appelation; that the alphabet was first invented and 
ordinances dealing with the honours and offerings due to the gods were 
properly established. He was the first also to observe the orderly 
arrangement of the stars and the harmony of musical sounds and their 
nature, to set up a wrestling school, and to give thought to the 
rhythmical movement of the human body and its proper development. 

He also made a lyre and gave it 3 strings, imitating the seasons of 
the year; for he adopted 3 tones, a high, a low, and a medium: the high 
rom summer, the low from winter, and the medium from spring The 
Greeks were also taught by him the expounding, hermeneia, of their 
thoughts and for this reason he was named Hermes. In a word 
Osins, taking him for his priestly scribe, communicated with him on 
every matter and used his counsel above that of all others. The 
o ive tree also, they assert, was his discovery, not Athena’s as the 


The Souda says he was the discoverer of metals, especially gold 
silver and iron. No doubt this attribution came about through 
his place in alchemy. Tertullian for the Christians cited Hermes 

rismegistos as the master of all who concern themselves with 
nature (scientists of any kind). Iamblichos and Galen rationalised 
the legends. The first wrote, “Our ancestors dedicated to him the 
discoveries of their science, having agreed to attribute everything 
to Hermes.” The latter, “In Egypt, all that has been discovered in 
the arts was submitted to the general approbation of the sages; then 
it was inscribed without its author’s name on columns kept in the 
sanctuary. Hence the multitude of works ascribed to Hermes.” 9 
Iambliches put the total of his books at 20,000, according to 
Seleukos Manethos made it 36,525. As the second number is 
divisible by 1461, the number of years in the Sothic period of the 

gyptian calendar, it seems that some astronomic calculations 
have intruded. 

In ancient Egypt Thoth was indeed the holder of the Divine 
Book; but the system of the gods was based on the governmental 
administration of the earthly State. The Pharaoh got reports from 
is ministers and officials; details of all administrative work were 


163 

I arefully recorded in writing. So the Sungod, King of the World, 
needed a similar system. Thoth as his minister and scribe kept his 
Book of Government, not so much as a doomsbook or book-of- 
late as a record of the practical side of the god’s dominion. 10 

I I 'Ik >th sailed on the Sunboat of Re and had as title Great of Magic 
in the Ship of Millions; by his magic he defeated the DragonApepi 
(hat sought to swallow the Sun. One of his staffs had an eye 
1 hrough which the indwelling god could see. 11 By Graeco-Roman 
limes Thoth as the highgod’s scribe had turned into the supreme 
philosopher and natural scientist; and as we see from Diodoros, 
Re was in some respects supplanted by Osiris. Thoth’s secrets 
were engraved and hidden away: 

At last he readied the dearcut decision to deposit the sacred symbols of 
(lie cosmic elements near secret objects of Osiris, then, after making 
as well a prayer and pronouncing such and such words, to return to the 
heavens... 

“There are those,” said Hermes, “who will thoroughly know all the 
secrets of my writings and interpret them, and even if they retain some 
1 >f them for themselves alone, others among them that are for mankind’s 
benefit they’ll engrave on stelai and obelisks.” 12 

Thoth thus had his beneficient aspects, which linked him with the 
art of healing. An Edfu narrative of the Birth of the Ogdoad 
(eight gods) tells of a shrine of his at Medinet Habu erected by 
I’tolemaios IX Euergetes II, where he was called Lord of 
I ishmunein and where a healing god Teos was also honoured. In 
ibis temple the deified sage Imhotep, identified by the Greeks 
with Asklepios, had a cult as well; and this fact has led to the 
conjecture that Teos, Dhr, was himself a deified priest of 
Memphis. 13 This Dhr, a Sm- priest, may have been the Theban 
I lermes whom Clement cited with Asklepios of Memphis as 
examples of deified men. But the epithet stm, a late form of sm, 
in inscriptions of the temple is used only for Thoth, not for 
Teos; it seems an epithet of Thoth as oracular god and healer. 14 

In any event there was a cult of Thoth at Thebes long before 
1 lie Ptolemaic temple; in the New Kingdom he had been identified 
with the Theban moongod Khonsu. It would be natural enough 
for a human sage, Teos, if deified, to be honoured in the same 
shrine as Thoth, god of wisdom—just as we find Imhotep and 
Amenhotep, two more human sages, as shrine-sharers with the 
god. In linking Thoth with deified sages, Ptolemaios IX, who 








HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


164 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

more than any other Ptolemy loved Egyptian lore, did not want 
to lessen his role; rather he wished to stress the connection with 
human wisdom. In the text of the shrine dedication, Thoth (or 
perhaps Teos) is said to descend every evening on the temple as an 
ibis and go forth in the morning. It seems then that here was a 
place of night-oracles through incubation. Perhaps the main 
worshippers were sick folk come to get advice from the god, who 
appeared in dreams. Thoth’s epithet here. Atm , he-who-hears 
would suit such a situation. 15 

The later function of Thoth-Hermes as the great revealer is 
perhaps linked with his role in a number of demotic appeals, 
which seem to be descendants of the ancient Letters to the Dead. 
We find them addressed both to him and to Imhotep. One" 
written on a jar, was posted at the grave of three persons (a man, a 
woman, and a second man who seems the son of the first). A 


165 

woman-attendant of the Ibises greets the trio by the name 
"before Thoth” and launches out in a complaint to the god about 
1 lie seizure of her property by a man she names. Another appeal, 
on papyrus, of the Ptolemaic period, was written on behalf of a 
boy and a girl minor, complaining of their father’s treatment of 
them after the mother’s death and his remarriage. Another 
papyrus, also Ptolemaic, is a request by a son to be spared death 
through an illness; in return he promises, among other things, to 
pay a sum in monthly instalments for the burial of the ibises. 18 A 
fourth on a coarse-textured piece of linen (dated to the reign of 
Amasis or Dareios I) makes a wild complaint against someone 
not of this earth: 

Calamity O Thoth, Twice Great, Lord of Hermopolis! O Great 
< :<Hindis! O every god who is here! It happened to Esnekenbo son of 
I lor, whose mother is Hapertais, from the Hand of the Evil Daimon. 



17. The weighing of the heart of Osiris Ani (the deadman Am I. mol) by Anubis and Asten, with Thoth as register, and the 

great company of the god-. 1 I Iriiopolis as witnesses 










HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


l66 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The master is the one who protects his servant who is maltreated. 
Protect me from it. 

Our Great Lord, I am too old for the troubles in which I stand. He 
who is cast into the Justification [?] at an old age [?], those who [are 
dead] will be gracious to him and bring him in. Be gracious to me, O 
gods who are here. Propitiate for me the gods against whom I have 
committed wrongs and propitiate for me my Good Daimon. Cause 
them to be gracious to me. Save me from your destruction of wrong¬ 
doing. 

Protect me from the Evil Daimon. Save me from it. Do not give me 
to the Evil Daimon. Take me to yourself. Do not give me to it. Save 
me from it from this day on. Do not let it come near a person of mine. 
Do not let it come near a possession of mine. Do not let another have 
power over me except you [Thoth]. 17 

The term I have here translated as Evil Daimon appears in demotic 
horoscopes in application to the Sixth Hour and is given as 
Kake Tjche in Greek, while the term translated as Good Daimon 
appears in the opposed Fifth House as Agatha Tjche. The same 
terms appear in the sentence: “It is in women that Good Fortune 
and Bad Fortune exist upon earth.” Again in a fifth letter the 
suppliant has no human master to protext him; he has only the 
divine master Thoth; this man works at an ibis-farm. 18 

Thoth also appears in healing spells. Thus on the base of 
magically curative statue, where are eleven spells against snakes 
and scorpions, Thoth appears with a claim to avert poison from 
young Horos or from the patient, attributing to Horos the various 
parts of the latter’s body with appropriate epithets. 19 

The importance of the appeal-letters is that we find Thoth 
coming down from his high remote position in the Sunboat and 
ready to listen to the most humble cries for aid. None of the 
afflicted here ask for a revelation of knowledge, but Thoth is 
seen as accessible to human pleas. Since he was supremely the god 
of knowledge, it was only a further step, though a bold one, when 
he was asked to share out that knowledge, at least among those 
who were striving to make themselves worthy of it. 

The all-knowing revealer was Hermes Trismegistos. In the appeal 
cited above Thoth is the Twice Great. We find the phrase, 
megistos and megistos , Greatest and Greatest, on an inscription of 
the Greek titulary of Ptolemaios Philopator; and the hieroglypoc 
version also agrees in thus describing Thoth. The Rosetta Stone 


167 

lias Great and Great, megas and megas. A papyrus with royal 
lilies of Ptolemaios IV may have a triple megistos to fill a gap. 20 
But the triple title certainly occurs on a Greek ostrakon from north 
Saqqara: “Greatest and Greatest God and Great Plermes”. Two 
more ostraka are of interest, found in a small building to the west 
of a sloping dromos cut in limestone that led down to an entry 
into the catacombs of ibis-mummies. The building opened out of 
the hall from which the dromos ran down; it consisted of a cellar 
and niche appropriate to an oracular statue, and we may assume 
that a dream-oracle existed here. The date is fixed by the type of 
script and the reference to two Ptolemies, VI and VII, and 
Kleopatra II, with a joint reign lasting 170-64 b.c . 21 The writer is 
I loros, pastophoros of Isis “of the sanctuary in the city of Isis, 
Scbennyto”. In one text we have the draft record of an oracle 
delivered to him by megistos and megistos god megas Hermes : then a 
new draft with some additions that mention “the rulers”; then 
1 he writer’s own name and title; finally the god’s triple title again. 
I11 another text Hermes is omitted; the form is that of a letter to 
the rulers about oracles and an obsure reference to what had been 
said: “[The army] of the Egyptians will be routed and the king is 
to advance into [or up to] the Thebaid.” Clearly Horos was 
writing at the time of some disturbances mentioned in two 
fragments of Diodoros. First an Egyptian notable Dionysios 
Pctosarapis had tried to cause trouble between the two reigning 
brothers in Alexandreia, failed, and retired to the suburb of 
Fleusis, where he gathered some 4,000 men. Defeated, he fled “to 
the Egyptians”—apparently to the chora or countryside—where he 
(irganised further revolt. The second fragment tells of “another 
disturbance” in the Thebaid. There is no certainty that this one 
links with the first; but we hear that the king overran the Thebaid 
except for Panopolis, which the staunchest of the rebels fortified 
and which had to be taken by siege. After punishing the rebels, 
the king returned to Alexandreia. In our oracle it seems that 
I lermes-Thoth is on the side of the Ptolemies, at least to the extent 
of prophesying their victory. We see that Hermes could be 
appealed to for inf ormation as well as for aid. 22 

In ancient Egyptian texts the threefold repetition of a hiero¬ 
glyphic expressed the plural. 23 The triple titles should then strictly 
mean only Hermes the Greatest; but they were taken as meaning 
Thrice-Great as is shown by the paraphrase Trismegistos. Magic 
papyri of the Hellenistic and later periods used as synonymous with 







HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


168 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

Trismegistos the surnames Frismegas, Trismegalos, and late 
texts expanded the names to Nine-Times-Greatest. 24 There was 
no connection with the designation of the pillared busts or 
Hermai as Trikephalos, Three-headed; such herms stood at the 
crossings of three roads—as the Four-headed stood at those of 
four. People who claimed to possess all the parts of philosophy or 
other fields of knowledge were jokingly given these names. 25 

In the later working-out of the place of Hermes in Egyptian 
thought he was divided into two persons. George Synkellos tells 
us of Manethos: 

In the time of Ptolemaios Philadelphos he was styled Highpriest of the 
pagan temples of Egypt and wrote from inscriptions in the Seriadic 
Land [Egypt] which had been traced, he says, in sacred language and 
holy characters by Thoth the First Hermes and translated after the 
Flood into hieroglyphic. When the work had been arranged in Books 
by Agathodaimon, son of the Second Hermes [Trismegistos] and father 
of Tat, in the temple-shrines of Egypt, Manethos dedicated it to the 
above King Ptolemaios II Philadelphos in his Book of Sothis, using the 
following words: 

Letter of Manethos of Sebenntytos to Ptolemaios Philadelphos: 

To the Great King Ptolemaios Philadelphos Augustus: Greeting to 
my Lord Ptolemaios from Manethos Highpriest and Scribe of the 
sacred shrines of Egypt, born at Sebennytos and living at Heliopolis: 
it is my duty. Greatest King, to reflect on such matters as you may 
desire me to inquire into. So, as you are making researches about the 
Future of the Universe, in obedience to your command I shall set before 
you the Sacred Books which I have studied, written by your forefather 
Hermes Trismegistos. Farewell, I pray, my Lord King. 26 

This letter is not genuine Manethos; Augustus was a title of the 
Roman emperors, not of the Ptolemaic kings. But Manethos did 
in fact write a History of Egypt, of which we have fragments. As a 
Heliopolitan priest, he must have known the Sacred Tree in the 
great hall of the temple, where Seshat, the Lady of Letters, the 
Mistress of the Universe, wrote with her own hand the names’ and 
deeds of rulers. She was shown with Thoth and Atum making 
inscriptions on the leaves and fruits of the tree. We find Manethos 
and Hermes linked in a list of medical writers in an MS of Celsus. 
The list includes Flermes Trismegistos, Manethos, Queen 
Kleopatra, Nechepso. 27 

In the hermetic Asklepios Hermes refers to his grandfather 
Hermes; and Augustine wrote, “At the time when Moses was 


169 

born, Atlas is found to have lived, that great astrologer, brother of 
Prometheus, maternal grandfather of the elder Mercurius, whose 
grandson was that Trismegistus Mercurius. 28 

The Books of Thoth certainly existed in Hellenistic-Roman 
times, if not earlier, since Clement of Alexandreia gives us an 
elaborate account of a procession in which they were carried: 

The Singer is the one opening the march, bearing one of the attributes 
of music. He must know by heart two of the Books of Hermes: the first 
that contains the hymns to the gods, the second that sets out the rules of 
the royal life. After the singer comes forward the Astrologer who 
holds in his hand the clock and the palm, symbols of astronomy. He 
must know and have unceasingly on his lips the Books of Hermes 
treating of this science. These number four: one deals with the systems 
of stars that appear fixed; another on the meetings of the sun’s and 
moon’s light; the other two on their risings. In the third place comes the 
sacred Scribe with plumes on his head and in his hand a book and a 
rule, on which are set also the ink and reed he uses in writing. He in his 
turn is held to know what concerns the hieroglyphs, cosmography, 
geography, the course of the sun, moon, and seven planets, the 
chorography of Egypt and the description of the Nile. He should be 
able to recite the sacred instruments and decorations as well as the 
places destined for them, the measures, and generally all that belongs 
to the ceremonial. 

After these three persons comes on the one called the Master of 
Ceremonies, who holds a cubit, attribute of justice, and a cup for 
making libations. He must be instructed in all that concerns the cult of 
the gods and sacrifices. There are ten things that the cult of the gods 
and the whole Egyptian religion embraces: sacrifices, first fruits or 
offerings, hymns, prayers, processions, festivals, etc. etc. At last, to end 
the march comes the Prophet bearing the ewer, followed by those with 
the offered loaves. For the prophet is in addition charged among the 
Egyptians with the distribution of food. In his role of supreme pontiff 
he must know the ten books called sacerdotal. These deal with the 
laws, the gods, and all that relates to discipline. 

There are then forty-two Books of Hermes extremely necessary: 
thirty-six, which hold all the Egyptian philosophy, are carefully studied 
by those of whom we have just spoken. As for the six others, which deal 
with medicine and treat the body’s constitution, maladies, instruments, 
eye-remedies, and finally remedies for women, they are the object of 
assiduous study by those who wear the cloak—that is, the doctors. 29 

Thoth was indeed at the head of the healing gods. The Egyptians 
were much concerned with the toxins created in the body by 












HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


170 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

food-residues; and Thoth was said to have invented the enema_ 

just as the ibis used its long curved beak, according to Plinius, to 
clean out that part of his gut from which residues had failed to get 
evacuated. 30 Horapollon speaks of a scribe distinguishing 
between life and death” and of a holy book used by the scribes 
and called by them Ambres, “by means of which they decide the 
fate of a sick man lying down: whether he will live or not. This 
they judge from the position of the sick man.” Ambres is obscure. 
An attempt has been made to link it with ini’t-pr as magical 
tricks rather than as house-utensil, or with the name of the magi¬ 
cian cited by St Paul: “Now as Iannes and Iambres withstood 
Moses, so do these also resist the truth.” Paul is here drawing on a 
Jewish apocrypha which goes back to Hellenistic times; Plinius 
puts Moses and Iannes on the same level, perhaps drawing on an 
anti-Jewish tract of Apion. 31 Ambres has however also been 
derived from an Egyptian term for word or sacred formula, so 
that perhaps the reference is to curative magic, a theme in the 
books carried by Clement’s pastophoroi. This interpretation seems 
better than the linking of Ambres with a gloss of Hesychios: 
ambri^ein, “to serve in the sanctuaries”. 

Thoth and Tat both appear in spells. Where the Greek sorcerer 
called on Apollo for presages, the Egyptian called on Tat, Boel, 

or the Moon. Thus an evocation with the aid of a lantern has the 
formula: 

Boel Boel Boel Boel 1111 A A A A Tat Tat Tat Tat you who spread the 
immense light, companion of fire, in whose mouth is an inextinguish¬ 
able flame, great god who dwells in the fire, who are in the midst of the 
flames, in the celestial lake, between whose hands is the divine grandeur 
and the divine power, appear to this boy who has today my vase in his 
power so that he will reply to me truthfully, infallibly... Descend to the 
centre of this fire which is here before you, you who belong to Boel, to 
Aniel. 32 


We may note the stress on fire. Thoth through his connection 
with the Sunboat becomes a sort of guide for the magician. 

Launch yourself on high to heavens and make the lofty Good- 
spirit sigh after the lofty mistress. Hasten to the eternal waters and 
make Thoth wish to voyage. Awaken the desire. .. .” Here the 
spell is of love. 33 Another formula for inspiring love in a woman’s 
heart opens with Isis complaining to Thoth, called both baboon 
and grandfather, that she has found her sister Nephthys in copula- 


N 1 



1 K. Sckhait, Thoth, and Atum register a king’s name on the Heavenly 
Tree, placing the king within it 

1 ion with their brother Osiris. The latter section uses the metaphor 
(>f metallurgy to bring about the sexual fusion of the lovers in the 
embrace: 

Bclf, son of Belf, who has feet of copper, talons of iron, fixed with 
double nails of iron, who has ... a head, alert feet, a knotted tongue 
and a light sword: bring it to me, tempered with the blood of Osiris, 
and put it in the hand of Isis . . . This mysterious fire . . . all fire, all 
nape-of-neck, all sigh, all plaint, all... that you forge in this stove of 
lire, breathe it also into the heart and the liver, into the loins and belly 
< >(' N daughter of N. Lead her into the house of N son of N, and let her 
C i ve to his hand what is in her hand, to his mouth what is in her mouth, 
l o his body what is in her body, to his wand [penis] what is in her womb. 
Quick, quick, at once, at once. 34 

The metallurgical mystery here is very complex. The summoned 
spirit is made of metal; the sword he brings is tempered with 
Osiris’ blood; it seems further forged in the fire of the spell, the 
fire of love, as in a stove, to enter into body of the beloved; and 
ibis magical thrust of the fire-sword becomes the entry of the 
lover into the girl’s body. 

In the spells Thoth is connected with the number seven. In a 



















172 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

charm of Agathokles, for the procuring of a dream, we find: 

Thoth, whom every god invokes, of whom every demon is 
afraid and whose orders every angel obeys. Your name has Seven 
Vowels aeetoyo tajoeeao qyeeoia. I utter your famous name, name with 
constraining powers of every kind.” 33 i n anot her formula the 
magician thus addresses the sun in consecrating the magic ring of 

I am Thoth, inventor and initiator of magical means and magic 
wnung. Come here to my place, you who are underearth, rise up for me 
the greatest demon. Nun of the underworld, and you, gods of Nun of 
the underworld for lam Heron, enjoying great glory, the ibis-eye, the 
alcon-eye, the phoenix-eye travelling across the airs, enveloped in mire 
and . . . skin . . If I do not understand what is the soul of all Egyp¬ 
tians, Greeks, Syrians, and Ethiopians, and of every other tribe or 
nation whatever, if I don’t understand the past and the future if I 
understand nothing about their art and occupations, their works and 
way of life, their names and the names of their fathers and mothers 
brothers, sisters and dead, then I’ll pour the blood of the black 
ICynokephaios [dog-headed, Anoubis] into my vase, without hurting 
myself, 111 put [the vase] on a new pedestal. I’ll burn below it the bones 
of the Drowned One [Osins] and at the port of Bousiris I’ll cry [the 
name of] him who remained three days and three nights in the river 
[Osins]; the Drowned one, who, carried on the river current, was cast 
into the sea and was enveloped by the waves of the sea and by the 
clouds of the air. His belly and all his body will be eaten by fishes for I 
won t stop the fishes from eating him and they won’t close their’jaws. 

111 snatch [Horos] the orphan without father from his mother, 
the axis will be cast down and its two ends will come together. 36 

The last threat is to destroy the whole universe. We find it in 

ancient Egyptian spells directed against crocodiles, where the 
magician says: 

I, I am the chosen of millions, who have come out of the Duat [under¬ 
world], whose name is not known. If my name were pronounced on 
the nverbank, the river would turn dry. If on the earth, the earth would 
take fire. I, l am Shu [god of air], image of Re, who am seated in the 
divine Eye of my father. If the inhabitant of the water opened his jaw 
or made movement with his claws, I’d whelm the earth in the abyss of 
the south would change to the north with a 11 the world as 

The belief in Hermes as the revealer of nature’s secrets and of the 
divine essence spread wide and lasted long. A strange pocket of 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


173 


I Icrmetic beliefs, including much connected with alchemy, 
persisted among the Sabians of Harran in Mesopotamia. They 
survived as a pagan sect inside Islam, with Syriac as their ritual 
language, for at least two centuries, and turned out talismans, 
alembics, and astrolabes (needed to fix the times of the five daily 
prayers of the Moslems)—though many orthodox Moslem thinkers 
disliked magic, astrology, alchemy, as impugning Allah’s omni¬ 
potence. In the nth century their name was said to be derived 



19. Herm in Dionysiac form with implements of worship 

from Sab b. Idris, identified with Tat, son of Trismegistos. 38 (We 
saw above how among the Arabs Hermes was identified with 
Idris or Enoch, son of Adam.) The Sabian prophets were Hermes 
and Agathodaimon (Ahaydimon); and they seem to have had a 
very large collection of Hermetika, including documents now 
lost, at the time they adopted these works as their scriptures. 39 
The linking of Hermes and Enoch may have come under Islam; 
in any event the Sabians raise a number of difficult problems we 
shall later consider. Here we may note that in the Kitab al-nluf the 
astrologer Abu Ma’shar (died 886) makes Hermes Adam’s 
grandson. Adam taught him the hours of the day and night, and 
lie, Enoch-Hermes, first spoke of “upper things such as the 
motion of the stars”. He first built sanctuaries, developed 
medicine, and wrote many books on earthly and heavenly 
subjects. “He was the first to prophesy the coming of the Flood 
and he saw that heavenly plague by water and fire threatened the 




























175 


174 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

earth. 4 0 All this is connected with what was said earlier of Hermes 
and the Pyramids; and through such traditions it is possible that 
the Hermetic TLrater or Bowl later on in medieval times develooed 
into the Holy Graal. In Hermes to Tat, The Krater or Monad we are 
told that Hermes filled a great krater with Nous, Mind, and sent it 
down to earth. “And he has appointed a herald with orders to 
proclaim to the hearts of men: Plunge, you who can, into this 
bowl here, you who believe you will ascend towards him who has 
sent the bowl on to earth, you who know for what you have 
come into being.” And so the reborn initiate of Hermes cries, “I 
have entered an immortal body ... I am in heaven and on earth, 
in water and in air, I am in animals and plants, I am in the womb,' 
not yet begotten, and after birth, I am everywhere.” He has 
become vitally part of the universe, realising his kinship with all 
things and thus entering into them as the alchemist enters in the 
metals of transformation. 

We may add that the creative voice of Thoth, under the 
influence of Hellenistic thought, became the creative Wisdom, 
Sophia, of God, which in turn became the Logos, Word or Reason’ 
of Philon, Neoplatonists, and finally of Christians. Two hiero¬ 
glyphic inscriptions, under Nero, at Dendera read as follows: 

Thoth the great and great, the most ancient, the master of the city 
Hermopolis the Great, the great god at Tentyris, the sovran god, 
creator of the Good, heart of Re, tongue of Atum, throat of the god 
whose name is hidden, lord of Time, king of the years, scribe of the 
annals of the Ennead. Revelation of the god of light Re, he who exists 
from the beginning, Thoth, he who rests on the truth. What springs 
from his heart has at once existence. What he utters subsists for 
eternity. 41 

Chemistry in medieval times was still called the Hermetic Science; 
but no Greek work under the name of Plermes has come down to 
us, though we hear of titles of his such as The Work of the Sun. We 
have only three fragments and various quotations by Zosimos, 
Stephanos, and others. However we can build up a fairly clear 
view of his doctrines. First, he is now and then linked with 
Demokritos. Hermes and Demokritos are known according to 
the Catalogue to have spoken briefly of an Unique Tincture, and 
others allude to it. Every sublimated vapour is a pneuma and 
such are the tincturing qualities; thus it is that the divine 
Demokritos speaks of the whitening and Hermes of the smoke.” 42 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 

I lie main stress in his thought seems to be on the unitary nature 
ol process. 

< >itiers say that the Water is multicomplex, resulting as it does from 
two complex unities . . . just as the world is numerically one, though 
«(imposed of multiple elements. Thus Hermes declares that the totality 
nl things, though multiple, is called One. (The Christian.) 

This is the operation \iosis\ of which Hermes speaks under the name: 
the Good with many names. 

For the truth of my remark I take Hermes to witness. He states: 

( io to Achab the labourer and learn that he who sews wheat makes 
wheat come to birth. [Zosimos.] 43 

Asa result Hermes saw man as a microcosm. Olympiodoros tells 
ns: 

I lermes imagines man as a microcosm. All that the macrocosm con- 
la ins, he also contains. The macrocosm contains creatures of earth and 
water; man has fleas, lice, and intestinal worms. The macrocosm has 
overs, springs, seas; man has entrails. The macrocosm has creatures of 
ilie air; man has gnats. The macrocosm contains exhalations that burst 
out in its bosom, for example the winds; man has his flatulences. The 
macrocosm has sun and moon; man has two eyes, and the right eye is 
related to the sun, the left eye to the moon. The macrocosm has 
m< run tains and hills; man has bones. The macrocosm has the sky; and 
man has the head. The macrocosm has the twelve sky-signs; and man 
contains them too, from the head, i.e. the Ram, down to the feet, which 
.ire assimilated to the Fishes. There then is what they [the Hermetists] 
(.ill the Cosmic Image \mimema \, as Zosimos notes in his book of 
Virtue . 44 

This system had been built up out of the mass of correspondences 
worked out in terms of the theory of Sympathy-Antipathy, 
especially through the merging of medicine and astrology. 
Firmicus Maternus in dealing with the offspring of the world— 
ilie position of the planets in the zodiacal signs at the beginning 
i if things, informs us: 

The God fabricating the world has constituted man’s body, like the 
world’s, out of a mixture of the four elements, fire and water, air and 
earth, so that the happy combination of all these elements makes of the 
living a fine work according to the form of the divine model. And by 
l he artifices of his creative art he has so made man up that under the 
constraint of nature there gathers in a small body [microcosm] every 
force and every substance in such a way that at the powerful celestial 









HERMES TRXSMEGISTOS 


177 


176 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

breath that descends from the divine spirit to vivify the mortal body he 
prepares a dwelling, fragile indeed, but still resembling the world. 

And that is why man, like a little world, is vivified by the flame and 
the eternal course of the five planets and the sun and moon, so that the 
living being created in the world’s image may likewise be governed by 
t ie same substance of the divinity. Hence comes it that the two divine 
men who merit every admiration, Petosiris and Nechepso, whose 
wisdom has had access to the inner secrets of the divinity, have handed 
on to us, instructed as they were by a divine master of knowledge the 
theme of the world in its birth-products to declare and prove thsrt man 
formed according to nature and the world’s image, is sustained cease¬ 
lessly by the same principles that direct and sustain the world through 
the rays that warm it with a perpetual heat. 45 

The source of this declaration, he says, was “the Book of 
Asklepios called Myriogenesis”; and Asklepios together with 
Anubis, he mentions elsewhere, draw their lore from Hermes 
Trismegistos, “the divine master of knowledge”. 46 

Hermes seeks to work our correspondences or interlinked 
forces of sympathy between various objects or materials. The 
effect of the phases of the moon on silver, for instance, or on 
magnesia, “which becomes lunar in its nature” Hermes held that 
all the materials were alive in some way or other. “Thus the 



;u live qualities [of the metallic bodies] take life under the action 
1 >1 heat and are chilled under the action of cold. Hence the metal is 

< ailed a Living Animal, %oyon empsychon , by the very speculative 
I lermes.” 47 

The remarks on method show the notion of dynamic and dia¬ 
lectical process. “If you do not strip the bodies of bodies and if 
you do not give body to the bodiless, the expected result will be 
void.” (Olympiodoros attributes this statement also to Maria the 
Jewess.) 48 It seems then that we can hand over to Hermes the 
aphorism linked with that just cited: “If the two do not become 
one, and the three one, and the totality of the composition one, 

I lie expected result will be void.” 49 These ideas have a close 
affinity with those of Demokritos-Ostanes and Kleopatra; and it 
is hard indeed to say which writer has priority. Perhaps they all 
were drawing on early anonymous traditions. At any rate 
Xosimos looked to Hermes as the originator of the notion of the 
alchemic process as triadic: 

The present [chemical] composition, once set in movement, leaves the 

II lute of monad in order to constitute itself as a triad by driving out the 
mercury. Constituted as a monad that overflows as a triad, it is a 
continuum; but in return, constituted as a triad with three separated 
elements, it constitutes the world by the providence of the First Author, 

(iause and Demiurge of Creation, who henceforth is called Trismegistos 
in the sense that he has envisaged what he has produced, and what 
produces it, under a triadic mode. 50 

This important statement deepens the triadic concept by applying 
11 directly to the moment of change, in which simultaneously 
there occur an act of union and an act of expulsion, of negation. 
This pattern is not a chance product, is not something that has 

< inly a limited application; it is the creative or formative pattern of 
.ill process. The alchemist is re-enacting the role of the demiurge. 

A late commentator puts the matter in a less comprehensive 
form: 

The first of the chiefs of Goldmaking is Hermes, called Trismegistos, 
who has received this name, not only because the present operation is 
made according to three activities of the power, but because he observed 
1 hat other operations than this are also made according to three distinct 
ontological essences. He it is then who has first written on the great 
mystery. 51 

Various operations were attributed to Hermes. As we would 














178 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

expect from his concern with correspondences, he was interested 
m determining the right time for an experiment. 

It is necessary also to examine the question of favourable times. The 
ptietima he [? Hermes] says, should be separated from the flower by the 
sun s action and maceration should continue up to the spring, and then 
after that, at every favourable time,^ should be exposed to the 
fire, so that the gold may be good for using. Broad sunlight indeed he 

accomplished S ^ ^ SayS ’ k ’ S by the SUn that evel 7 thi ng is 

Listen to what Hermes says: that the softening of substances apt to 
grow softened is made by cold. He has explained himself at length on 
this point at the end of Whitening of Lead. He says there also on the 
subject of gold: Thus in some sort operates he who prepares the All.” 
He has treated there also on the way of sieving the AH by any sort of 
sieve whatever. And Agathodaimon hasn’t failed to note the point- for 
he names this operation Washing and Purification of the mineral when 
pulverised and become liquid, the mineral passes through the sieve or 
fi ter. Hermes says: “It becomes like acacia-gum in drops.” But of a 
sediment is produced, that’s proof that neither the substances nor the 
mineral have been pulverised enough. 

Hermes has himself expounded these matters at length in Sieves 
when he repeats at the beginning and the end: “If the waters descend’ 
the sieve itself seems to flow away”. According to the great Hermes, the 
waters indeed descend all together, and then at once they remount 
through the utensil in which they seem to boil. 52 

Lhe operation described in the first paragraph seems to consist of 
various treatments of a goldbearing mineral for the purpose of 
extracting the pure gold. The spirit, pnettma, would be the product 
of sublimation; it is then exposed to the winter-sun to separate 
it from the efflorescences or excretions; next to the action of salt 
(. natron) then to that of fire. The other paragraphs indicate 
recipes of the same sort. Lead-whitening would signify the passage 
from lead to silver. As for tinctures we are told: 

Hermes has said in effect that by purple and by purple-coloured stone 
the ancients meant the rust of copper. Hermes, writing to Pauseris, 
said, If you find the purple-coloured stone, know that it’s indeed the 
thing [you seek]. You can find it, Pauseris, described in my Little Key.” 
Hermes never composed a work on the tincture of stones or purple 
but he wrote the Little Key on the composition of komaris according to 
the two formulas, so as to clarify the difficulty over the rust. In addition 
he was much taken up with quicklime. 53 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


179 


11 crules used many symbolic terms: choir-of-gold for chrysokollor, 
l|,c Great God for the sun; midge-blood for red kobathia- shells; 

I .iy- ( ff-honey for mercury; virgin’s tail; cock-man and mole-man. 54 

I I is love of the Sun appears: 

The ancients had the habit of making sulphurous substances incom¬ 
bustible by means of a light fire and whitening materials. What the 
lire effects in an artificial way, the effects with the concourse of divine 
n.ii urc. And great Hermes says: “The sun which makes all things.” And 
llu- same Hermes has not ceased from repeating everywhere, “Expose 
In ihe sun,” and “dilute the vapour in the sunlight,” and from one end 
In the other [and kai kato\ he mentions the sun. Everything is brought 
about in some sort by the action of solar fire, as we have already said. 
(Zosimos). 56 

A reference by Zosimos interestingly links Hermes with the 

I untasies about Fallen Angels which we found earlier in Tertullian, 
the Book of Enoch, and the Flermetics. 

II is said in the Holy Scriptures, woman, that there exists a race of 
demons who have commerce with women. Hermes mentions it in his 
I 'hysika —indeed almost all the work, openly or covertly, deals with it. 
bis then related in the ancient and divine Scriptures that certain angels 
were smitten with women, came down from heaven, and taught them 
;i |l the arts of nature. Because of this, says the Scripture, they offended 
( bid and dwelt outside heaven; for they had taught men all the wicked 
nrts that have no utility for the soul. 56 

I lermes then seems to have known the Book of Enoch, as Zosimos 
docs. This link would put the Vhysika of Hermes on to a date 
sometime in the 2nd century a.d. —unless there was an earlier 
1 radition of the fallen angels teaching arts and crafts, which has 
been lost to us. St Paul evidently knew of tales about the angels 
coming down to copulate with women; otherwise there is no 
point in his rebuking the Corinthian women for praying or 
prophesying without covered heads. They should be shorn or 
covered, he says; woman was created for man. “For this cause 
ought the woman to have power on her head because of the 
ingels.” 57 No doubt he was thinking of Genesis, where we are told 
1 lie sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair, and 
1 hey took “wives of all which they chose”. But he would hardly 
have felt that this remote event was going to be re-enacted in 
(:< irinth unless there were more topical records of such goings-on. 
Still, the statement by Zosimos does make us feel that the 






180 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Physika passing under the name of Hermes could not be very 
ancient, especially as we are told that the theme of the fallen 
angels pervaded the work. 

There is another angle from which we can approach the question 
of Hermes, that of the Koiranides which form a Bestiary with the 
animals studied in alphabetical order. The Short Book of Hermes 
Trismegistos is a work by a By2antine editor, who had also brought 
together two versions of the Kyranis, that of Hermes and that of 
Harpokration. This Book deals also with plants and stones, as was 
normal in Physika, e.g. that ofBolos. 58 Further, the prologue of the 
Kyranis, in the two editions of Hermes and Harpokration, refers 



21. Mithraic cameo: Mithras born from the rock between the dioscures, 
surrounded by various symbols, including the cup and bread of his 
eucharist, reverse two snakes twined on staff with drinking-bowl, stars, 
and altar between note the two more stylised snakes on the outside 
with heads going the other way 

to an earlier work, the Archaic Book. The connections here are 
with Syria rather than with Egypt; both the works of Hermes and 
Harpokration give a Syrian provenance. Thus Harpokration says 
the book had come from Syria, from the region where the 
Euphrates flows, as also had the Kyranis. Both books he mentions 
as sunk in a Syrian lake. 69 In the Kyranis we read: 

Peewit: a creature that flies in the air, called the peewit. It has a crest of 
seven colours, two-fingers-long, which stands up and comes down. It 
is itself of four colours, as in relation with the four seasons of the year. 
It is called koukouphas or poupos, as is written on the subject in the 
preceding work called the Archaic Book. The creature is sacred. 60 

There is another reference by Olympiodoros. In reading this 
passage we must remember that the alchemists used the term Man 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS l8l 

Ini ilie Metal being treated. We hear of copper-man, asem-man 
,uul gold-man, and we shall later see the imagery at work in the 
vision of Zosimos. In one MS we see the metals and various 
substances represented as men and kings shut up in the phials 
where the operations are going on. 61 

And indeed as for the Man, we can dilute him and transmute him by 
projection, as said the Philosopher [Hermes] to Zosimos. He said in 
dlcct, “I have demonstrated that this living thing here is on the model 
nl i lie cosmic living thing. And again in the Pyramis Hermes, making 
,ui enigmatic allusion to the living thing, said that the living thing is in 
ilie proper sense the essence of the chrysokolle and of silver. Hermes 
recounts in effect that the Man is the Cock cursed by the Sun. He tells 
1 1 mt in the Archaic Book. He also mentions there the Mole. He says 
1 1 ml: the Mole also was once a Man, but came under God’s curse for 
having revealed the mysteries of the Sun [Gold] and been made blind. 
And indeed, if it comes to be seen by the Sun, the earth does not 
receive it into its breast again until the evening. He says that it’s 
because of having seen the form of the Sun [Gold] such as it was [or, 
ihe nature of Goldmaking]. And it has exiled the Mole into the black 
earth for having broken the rule and revealed the mystery to men. 62 

Wc also find a reference to Hermes’ book in a treatise on the 
Peony: “It is called consecrated in the preceding book called 
The Archaic Book.” The consecration of the flower was by attaching 
Id it, with a thread of raw silk, a piece of the skin of seal which 
had also been consecrated at the moment of dissection: “as you 
have been told in The Sacred Book, in the chapter on dissections.” 
Some stones (keramite, siderite, and beryllite) are also somehow 
used, and the plant is fumigated in a circle while two prayers are 
said; then it has its roots laid bare and is taken up. 63 

We meet the seal in other magic relations, as a prophylactic or a 
good-luck talisman. The cosmic blood in the following passage 
was made from the little black pismires found at the heart of a 
( hrysanthemum. 

Take then from a sea-seal the hairs between nostrils and jaw, a stone 
of green jasper, the heart and liver of a peewit, a radicle of peony or 
ylykyside, vervain seed, cosmic blood of the chrysanthemum, the point 
of a seal’s heart, and again the crest on the peewit’s head. Then you’ll 
Imve a recipe more powerful than all those that have been given. After 
k tiling the lot, with a little musk, in a balsam of four ingredients, put it 
in the skin of ichneumon or seal or young peacock or vulture, and carry 
it, being in a state of purity. 64 

7 










HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


182 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

We see then that these citations support the view of Hermes as 
a strong partisan of the unitary concept of the cosmos, with all 
things bound together with correspondences and sympathies 
He seems close to Bolos. We cannot prove that his works were 
written before the 1st century a.d.; and so on the whole we may 
take his Physika and related works (which include the alchemic) 
as later than Bolos, the products of a general trend that Bolos 
seems largely to have initiated. But this does not mean that there 
were not works or aphorisms going under the name of Hermes 
much earlier. 

, in >U ! d CXpe , Ct the E gyP tian approach to alchemy to be 
typified by the works attributed to Hermes, whether they had one 
author or several. If this were so, Hermes would be the figure set 
up to oppose Demokntos and Ostanes, and would stand for 
varnishing, tincturing methods as opposed to alloying. We have 

3k l ad L n °T d r t ! ie . definlte existence of ^o schools. A small work 

r J T T B °° k ° fS0phe [ Che °P s J the Egyptian and of the 

God of the Hebrews, Lord of the Powers, Sabaoth, makes a plain state¬ 
ment of the opposing views. The corrupted text seems to date 
sometime after a.d. 300. The author is a supporter of the Egyptian 
way: he wants to obtain gold by means of a simple varnish that 
imitates the colour without alloying any parcel of the metal in 
question with common metal. He calls this way the Tincture of 
Demokntos: also the Tincture with the name of Monad, which 
yields the komarts of Sky thia, that is, the red coloration drawn from ' 
the root of the comarum falustre. The other method, which he 
considers imperfect, consists of “making” gold by alloying a 
sma 1 quantity of gold with a large quantity of common metal. 
This way is the Tincture of Isis, “which Heron has made known” 

It corresponds to that set out by Hermes, which is also the waJ 
advocated by Isis: to multiply gold by gold, just as the farmer 
multiplies wheat by sowing the seed of wheat. (Why Heron appears 
in the matter is not clear. There was a god Heron in Ptolemaic 
Egypt, of a complex character. For our purposes here it is suffi¬ 
cient to see him as a form of Horos.) 65 

The P ° ok °f So P be 0 P en s with a statement which directly con¬ 
nects alchemic process with the movement of the soul in salvation: 

The True Book of Sophe the Egyptian and of the God of the Hebrews 
Lord of the Powers, Sabaoth-for there are two sciences and two 
wisdoms, that of the Egyptians and that of the Hebrews—is more 
solid than divine justice. Indeed this knowledge and wisdom of the 


183 


most excellent things has issued from the depth of the ages. No master 
Ims produced it; it is autonomous. It is immaterial and seeks nothing 
I tom bodies plunged into matter and wholly perishable; for it operates 
without itself having to undergo itself any changes. Now you possess it 
us a free gift. In effect, for those who save and purify the divine soul 
enchained in the elements, or rather the divine pneuma mixed in the 
dough of the flesh, the symbol of chemeia is drawn from worldmaking, 
h.osmopoiia, by way of example, just as the sun, flower of fire, is celestial 
sun and right-hand eye of the cosmos, and as copper, if it becomes 
III 1 wet through purification, is an earthly sun, who is king on the earth 
ns the sun is in the sky. 

The touch about the sun as the right-hand eye of the cosmos is 
genuinely Egyptian. “The Egyptians compare the Sun to a King 
.mil to the Right Eye” (Sextus Empiricus); “The Sun rules the 
licart . . . and the right-hand vision of man, the left hand of 
woman” (Porphyrios). 

This high-flown language, important in showing how the 
alchemist saw himself as a demiurge recovering the secrets of 
( reative process, suggests a late date (4th or 5 th century a.d.) for 
1 lie treatise; but the distinction it makes between the two schools 
'certainly went far back. The Egyptian type of recipe appears in 
1 be following from Physika and Mystika, with its two powders 
of projection: 

Take mercury, fix it with the body [metal] of magnesia or with the body 
i >f stibium of Italy or with sulphur that has not passed through fire, or 
with aphroselinon, or with quicklime, or the alum of Melos, or arsenic, 
or as you like, and throw the white powder on the copper. Then you’ll 
have copper that has lost its dark colour. Pour the red powder on the 
silver, you’ll get gold. If it’s on gold you throw it, then you’ll have 
gold-coral embodied. Sandaric produces this yellow powder as well as 
well-prepared arzenic or cinnabar after it has been entirely changed. 
Mercury alone can remove the dark colour from copper. Nature 
l riumphs over nature. 

Still, can we apply at all easily the simple differentiation of the two 
schools to the various facts or statements of theory we have 
brought together in connection with Demokritos-Bolos and 
I lermes? The triadic formula of Ostanes, with its conception of a 
progressive state of order developed out of chaos, the primary 
black, could not have been devised out of purely tinctorial 
methods. It presupposes a genuine chemical series of changes, in 
which the whole nature of the fused substances undergoes 






HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


184 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

qualitative shifts; it presupposes the use of fire as an active force, 
disintegrating and reintegrating the substances and their qualities! 
Again, both Demokritos-Bolos and Hermes insist on the unitary 
nature of process; both are profoundly affected by the sense of 
dynamic correspondences and interrelationships, which net the 
whole universe and provide a ceaseless and unbroken series of 
tensions, of fields of force. 

However, there can be no doubt that the two lines of approach 
did exist at an early date and that they generated fierce contro¬ 
versies among the alchemists. But probably various convergences 
also began early, and the strict lines of demarcation began to 
break down. We may safely take the trio, Demokritos, Ostanes 
and Hermes, to represent the fact that from the outset Greek,’ 
Egyptian and Iranian elements came together, in conflict and in 
amity, to bring about the basic concepts of alchemy and to develop 
the broad lines of technical approach. At root the conflict was one 
between the methods of metallurgy and those of the dyeing or 
colouring industries—though many other craft-processes (per¬ 
fume-making, cooking, fermentation) contributed their quota 
of ideas and methods. 

We may add two trifles connected with the name of Hermes. 
First, an Organon or Instrument for foretelling the issue of sickness 
according to a number applied in a certain way. A calculation 
was made, starting with the rise of Sirius in the month Epeiph, 
and was then referred to the table. The numbers ran from 1 to 
34 in Greek, in a special order. A similar Organon was attributed 
to Demokritos; and we may compare the system with that men¬ 
tioned by Horapollon for dealing with illness. 66 Secondly, under 
the names of Hermes and Agathodaimon we meet a commentary 
on a Riddle about the Stone: “I have 9 Letters and 4 Syllables, 
know me. The first 3 have 2 letters,” and so on. This riddle is also 
found in the Sibylline Books; it fascinated the alchemists, is 
cited by Demokritos and Olympiodoros, and discussed by 
Stephanos. Various answers were arrived at: ZoesBjthos (Abyss of 
Life), Theos Soter (Saviour God), Anexphonos (Voiceless), Phaos- 
phoros (Light-bearing); and later on Cardan and Leibnitz took it to 
be Arsemkon. Bjthos , by the way, was the fountain-source of life 
in Valentinian theology, throwing off a succession of emanations; 
sometimes it was given the name of Charts, Grace. 67 
We gain from the Arab alchemists many statements about 


185 

I lermes, some of which seem certainly of Greek origin. Most 
i ill cresting is The Emerald Table of Hermes, a summary of alchemic 
1 1 1<>ught, which exists in Arabic and in Latin versions. 68 It cannot 

I >c taken in any way as citing early works of Hermes, but it has its 
mots deep in Graeco-Roman alchemy, including that of Hermes. 

II is mentioned in an Arab work of the 8th century; and in the 
I ,atin text the Greek word telesmus is embedded. In one Latin 
version the translator tells us that the precious sentences of 
I lermes were found by Galienus Alfachim, or the Physician, on a 
plaque of emerald in a cave, which was clasped in the hands of 
the corpse of Hermes Trismegistos. The reader is exhorted to 
keep the text in strict secrecy from all but men of proved good¬ 
will. Galienus is cited as saying, “When I entered into the cave I 
received from between the hands of Flermes the inscribed Table 
of Zaradi, on which I found these words.” The name Galienus 
lias been taken as Galen, but is seems a corruption of Balinas 
(Apollonios of Tyana). Emerald was a term given by Egyptians 
and Greeks to almost any green substance, not only the true 
beryl, but also green granite and perhaps green jasper. The 
emerald vessels of medieval times, however, were made of green 
glass, like the emerald table of the Gothic kings of Spain or the 
Sacro Catino of Genoa (a great dish taken by Crusaders at the 
sack of Caesarea in 1101, which was said to have been brought by 
Sheba to Solomon and used at the Last Supper.) The term tpzradi 
seems as well to be a variant of a Persian word for an underground 
chamber. 69 Variants of the legend declared that the emerald slab 
with its precepts inscribed in Phoinikian characters was found 
in I lermes’ Tomb by Alexander the Great; or that a woman Zara, 
nt times indentified with Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took the table 
from the hands of the dead Hermes in a cave near Hebron some 
ages after the Flood. The text had a great effect on Western 
medieval alchemy; its words were often endowed with talismanic 
force and engraved on laboratory walls or interspersed through 
writings: 

True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. 

What is below is like what is above, and what is above is like what is 
below, for accomplishing the marvels of the One Thing. 

And as all things were from one thing, by the mediation of one thing, 
si > all things were born of this one thing, by adaptation. 

Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon. The Wind carried it in 
ils womb, its nurse is the Earth. 






186 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


It is the father of all the Perfection of the whole world. 

Its power is integral, if it be turned into Earth. 

Separate the Earth from the Fire, the Subtle from the Gross, smoothly 
and with judgment. 3 

E ascends from the Earth into the Heaven and again descends into 
the Earth and unites m itself the powers of things superior and things 
inferior. Thus you will receive the brightness of the whole world and 
all obscurity will fly far from you. 

It is the strong fortitude of all fortitude, for it will overcome every 
subtle thing and penetrate every solid. 

Thus was the world created. 

Hence there will be marvellous adaptations of which this is the 
means. 


Therefore am I called Hermes Trismegistus, having three parts of the 
wisdom of the whole world. 


What I had to say about the operation of Sol is completed. 

The Table thus states the doctrine of the unity of all things the 
common origin of all forms of matter, the common soul or essence 
that is to be found underlying all the forms, the belief that all 
substances are the result of a developmental process and are thus 
capable of undergoing transformation. Sun, Moon, Wind, and 
Earth (gold, silver, sulphur, mercury) are seen as the sources of 
the Stone, as the main stages of change; and the remark about 
up-and-down movement suggests the kerotakis or later Vase-of- 
Hermes in which the Stone was held to be prepared. 7 0 (In medieval 
alchemy the most important vessel was called Aludel, Hermetic 
Vase Vase of the Philosophers, Philosophers’ Egg, and was 
shaped like an egg; sometimes it was shown with an enclosing 
serpent.) 71 We see then that the main elements of thought in the 
lcibk are in accord with the doctrines attributed in Greek MSS 
to Hermes. 

There are also many citations from Hermes in Arab manu¬ 
scripts; and some of these can be taken as carried over from the 
Greek with reasonable certainty. Thus, we know Hermes as a 
philosopher of the Microcosm; and Ibn Umail writes “And so 
Hermes [Hurmus] named it [the Egg] Microcosm, from which 
and by which this thing of theirs is One. They called it Everything 
* e y called it Every Body and Every Drug that is in the Hands 
of Men. Greek texts deal with the Parts of the Egg and show that 
attempts were made to assimilate or classify all the materials of 
alchemy as these parts. “One is All” is a basic Greek aphorism and 
is inscribed in the egg-shaped space of Kleopatra’s Goldmaking. 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 187 

1 )rug, pharmakon, was a common term for the preparation meant 
l<> colour metals. 72 

Again Ibn Umail writes: 

llcrmes said, “The thing agrees with the thing nearest to it in its 
Nai ure. Then a Child, like to them in appearance, is bom from them.” 

K now too that the Humidity is from the influence of the Moon, and 
1 lie Oiliness from the influence of the Sun; and consequently the Oil 
rises above the Water. The Element of all Heat is Oiliness, and the 
element of all Cold is Humidity. The thing that comes into existence 

I mm the subtlety of its Element, then becomes gross and strong and 
hard in proportion to the moderation of its Nature and in proportion 
in the strength which Allah—glorified and honourable is He—has 
gra nted to it. Some of it is immoveable and some moveable, and some is 
in ilid and some is liquid. This corresponds to the statement of the sage 
A 1 as to the King that the Water does not adhere save with that which 

I I a s a similar sulphurous constituent in it, and nothing will be found in it 
c if a. similar sulphurous constituent except that from which it came into 
existence. 

11 is just like the words of Hermes: “The thing agrees with the thing 
nearest to it.” He followed this with his words “in its Nature” and did 
not say “other than its Nature;” and this is manifest and clear from the 
words of Hermes. The Stone of the Sages is [produced] from it, and by 
11 it is perfected. 73 

Here we have an echo of the Ostanes-formula about a nature 
rejoicing in a nature. What Ibn Umail is bringing out is that 
.iliiicmic combination is not just the union of any two substances; 
the latter must have a living relationship to one another, a dialec- 
lical unity, before their coming-together can be productive of a 
qualitative change. We do not know in Greek MSS a reference 
lo Oiliness as the Element of Heat; but in an Arabic treatise of 
I femes to his son Tat, Hermes defines Oil, the Master of Water, as 
existing midway between Water and Fire, and asserts that through 
Oil or the Oils there is a close relationship between mercury, 
sulphur, and fire, “just as the Fire is kindled in the Oil, so also 
is it kindled in the Sulphur.” It is therefore quite likely that Greek 
theory did deal with the function of Oiliness. 

The notion of Up-and-Down, And kai Kato, is important in 
Greek alchemy: on the one hand because of the microcosmic 
image in which things below reflect things above or correspond 
with them, and on the other hand because in processes such as 
distillation and condensation the produedon of vapour and water 





HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


188 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

seemed to reflect the evaporation, mists, clouds, and rains seen 

at work in a circular movement between earth and sky Ibn 
Umail says: y 

Regarding this Spiritual Water and the Sanctified and Thirsty Earth 
Hermes the Great, crowned with the Glorious Wisdom and the 

that the e Hi le L nCe ^ jt is > indubitable, certain and correct 

that the High is from the Low and the Low is from the High They 

fromtiat°o T th /° Ugh Ae ° ne ” i ust as things are produced 
° l E i SenCe by . a SIn S le preparation. Later, by his statement 

a 1 J fu h % 1S h i e mu and ltS m ° ther is the Moon >” he meant their Male 
and their Female They are the Two Birds that are linked in the pictures 

S D hi2lT Ven r 0f C begl T ng ° f the 0 P e radon; and from them the 

the operaSon'! “ And similarIy they afe at *e end of 

Cross 6 ” ? hlS Stat f me f’ “ T , he Subtle is more honourable than the 
th °i’ l m m nS i y * he , Subtle the Divine Spiritual Water; and by 
oss the Earthly Body. As for his later statement, “With gentle¬ 
ness and wisdom it will ascend from the Earth to the Sky, and will take 
re from the Higher Lights,” he means by this the Distillation and the 
raising of the Water into the Air. 

As for his later statement, “It will descend to the Earth, containing 

in of S,e S Al ? f gh , and the Low ’” he means by this the breathing 

elevation m th Y"® ° f ? C Spkit & ° m k ’ and its subsequent 

elevation to the highest degree of heat, and it is the Fire; and the Low 



22. Mammiform figures on staff with snakes undulating across and 
figure with two crossed snakes from the Book of the Underworld 
(tomb of Osorkon II at Tanis) 


189 


is 1 he Body, and its content of the controlling earthly power which 
Imparts the colours. For there lie in it those higher powers, as well as 
1 lie earthly powers, which were submerged in it. The natural operation 
.mil decay causes it to be manifest, and hence the strength of the Earth, 
mid of the Air, and of the Higher Fire, passed into it. 

I ,ater he said, “It will overcome the High and the Low, because in 
it is found the Light of Lights; and so the Darkness will flee from it.” 71 


This is a commentary on the Emerald Table and brings out the 
significance of the movement up-and-down, down-and-up. The 
use of the term, the Raising of the Water, occurs in Greek as early 
.is Demokritos-Bolos’ Physika and Mystika-, and the term Bird for 
1 volatile substance is found in Zosimos. 75 Thus Ibn Umail 
remarks further on this point: 

A ras in his discussion with Quisar, King of Rum, regarding this White, 
< Hear, Red, Hidden Water, spoke as follows, “Hermes said, ‘It is 
necessary to extract the Spirit with gentle fire because this Spirit, 
whose extraction must be carried out by a gentle fire like [the heat of] 
,1 brooding bird, is the Spirit that imparts Tinctures to the Natures and 
lorments the Natures because its sulphur was [formerly] combustible, 
hut now becomes incombustible and tinctures like the Tincture of 
Purple; and it is the Spirit of the Bodies because it is a Spirit that has 
been extracted.’ ” 76 


The ITeat of the Brooding Bird is prescribed in the Dialogue of 
Komarios and Kleopatra. We may recall also how Hermes in Greek 
texts liked a slow and lengthy operation, and preferred the use of 
sun-heat. 

Such quotations as these from Ibn Umail, which might be 
11 mltiplied from his writings or from those of al-Razi and Maslama 
,il Majriti, show that there was among the Arabs a genuine 
literature of Hermes, translated from or closely connected with 
(I reek works, as well as a large amount of treatises which merely 
used the name of the master to gain prestige. They do not add 
much to the picture given by the Greek passages, but help to 
c( mvince us of the importance of the Hermetic side of the alchemic 
1 radition. 

Before, however, we pass on, it is of interest to note that the 
notion of up-and-down, down-and-up, as distinct from that of 
the lower world merely reflecting the upper, is to be found in 
ancient Egyptian thought. The caduceus of Hermes has prototypes 
that can be found in early eastern imagery, from India to Egypt. 








190 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The rod or staff can be linked in a general way with the sacred 
Tree, Mountain, or Ded-pillar that are prominent in Egyptian 
mythology and ritual; and much light is cast on the inner meaning 
of these symbols by Indian ideas. There we find the idea of an 
invisible canal called nadi in Sanskrit (from nada, movement). 
Various translations have been made of the term: subtle canals 
(tubes), luminous arteries, psychic canals or nerves. There were 
many nadi, but three chief ones: Ida, Pingala, and Susumna. The 
last-named, the most important, corresponded to the vertebral 
column, Brahma-danda : “the microcosm of the macrocosm.” It 
was the great road for the movement of the spiritual forces of 
the body; and around it were twined, like the two snakes on 
Hermes’ staff, the two other nadi, Ida on the left, female and passive 
and Pingala on the right, male and active. On the top of Susumna 
at a point corresponding to the top of the skull, shone the Sun! 
Along the central axis were located six main centres or cakras 
(circles, wheels, represented in the shamanist rituals of Central 
Asia by the six cuts made in the Tree before which the shaman 
falls in his possessed fit of initiation and which in turn represent 
the six heavens through which he ascends, with mimed episodes 
at each stage.) At the base of the spine, like a snake coiled in its 
spirals, sleeps Kundalini, the “igneous serpentine power”, which 
awakens during the initiation and rises up, from base to top, 
through the various cakras till it reaches Sahasrara , located at the 
suture on the crown where the two parietal bones meet. This 
aperture, the Brahme (Brahme-randhra), is the place where “the 
Sun rises.” The original text thus expresses the imagery: “The 
Bride [Kundalini] entering into the Royal Highway [the central 
nadi] and resting at certain spots [the six cakras ] meets and embraces 
the Supreme Bridegroom and in the embrace makes springs of 
nectar gush out.” A Brahmin of Malabar, speaking of the Dravi- 
dian caduceus, said. The snakes that enlace represent the two 
currents that run, in opposite directions, along the spine.” 77 
But can we definitely transport these notions into ancient 
gypt? It seems that we can. Take such a representation as that 
from the tomb of Ramses VI of a staff on which stands a mummi¬ 
fied figure; between him and the staff-top is a pair of horns, and 
wriggling across the staff, lower down, in opposite directions, are 
two snakes. The dead man, at the last Hour in the Book of the 
Underworld, leaves his mortal remains, sloughs them, and is 
reborn as the scarab Khepri. A stele sets out the idea: “Homage 


HERMES TRISMEGITSOS 


191 

in you, Mummy, that are perpetually rejuvenated and reborn.” 
The horns on top of the staff are called Wpt, “summit of the skull, 
to open, divide separate”—that is, the parietal bones are thought 
of as opening to release the reborn dead-man. IPyValso means the 
Zenith of the Heaven. A figure in the tomb of Osorkon II at 
Tunis stands with a snake in each hand; the snakes criss-cross in 

I heir undulant movement, forming an X across the body. A 
symbol often cut on scarabs and scaraboids is that of the Ded- 
pillar with a snake hanging on either side, the heads going in 
opposite directions. The word Imakh (Blessed) in its ending and 
especially in its determinative is represented by the spinal column 
with an indication of the medulla; the ending also denotes the 

< anal or channel of the spine of the snake through which the 
Sun passes—the Night Sun in the Underworld. So the one symbol 
brings together the ideas of Blessedness, Spine, Spinal Canal 
(of the Sun). The Sun emerging at the end of the snake staff is 
both the dead man reborn and the newborn Sun (Khepri); the 
dead man emerges from the spinal column at the top of the skull, 
.md is reborn—the sun emerges from the spinal night-canal and 
Is reborn; the dead man and the sun are one. We may add that 
Ml, which means the Back, the Spine, and which enters into the 
g< >d name Besa, is homonymous with Sa, which means Protection. 

I'lie determinate connected with Imakh appears also in Pesecp, 
which takes on the meaning of both Spine and Illumination—a 
meaning attested from the time of the Pyramid Texts. The root 
Una of Imakh merges again with the homonymous Tree assimi¬ 
lated to the Ded-pillar and expressing the luminosity of the sun. 78 

We see, then, in ancient Egyptian thought a system closely 
analogous to that of India which we discussed. The individual 
spine and the world-pillar are identified; there is a concept of 
life-forces moving up and down this axis; the skull top is also the 
sky-zenith; the new birth of the life-force is one with the rising of 

I I ic sun. The microcosm-macrocosm relationship is very close to 
what we find in alchemy, but with the latter the whole system 

< >perates on a new and higher level of philosophic and scientific 
lliinking. 

In Greek thought we do not find anything so precise as the 
systems in Sanskrit and Egyptian; but with the growth of ideas 
about the pervasive pneuma the notion of forces descending into 
1 lie body and ascending out of it appears. Porphyrios cites an 
Oracle of Apollo: 






192 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The stream separating from Phoibos’ splendour on high 
and enveloped in the pure Air’s sonorous breath 
falls enchanted by songs and by ineffable words 
about the Plead of the blameless recipient: 
it fills the soft integument of the tender membranes, 
ascends through the Stomach and rises up again 
and produces a lovely song from the mortal pipe. 

Porphyrios comments that the descending pneuma enters into the 
body, and, using the soul as a base, gives out a sound through 
the mouth as through an instrument.” We are reminded of the 
ecstatic noises of the Gnostics which were thought to echo the 
music of the spheres. The lovely song from the mortal aulos 
seems to go straight up to the celestial source of pneuma in the 
sun. The down-and-up, up-and-down pattern is completed. 79 

Perhaps a confused version of the ideas we saw associated with 
Imakh, Sa, Pesedj, appears in a magical intaglio of terracotta where 
we see a serpent twining round a star-topped staff; parallel with 
the staff rise an altar surmounted with a staff (starred at either end) 
on the right and a schematic human form standing on its head on 
the left. Here there seems depicted an up-and-down flow of 
forces. On a blue-flecked onyx a monstrous figure (with scarab- 
body, human legs, head of a maned animal) stands crowned, hold¬ 
ing in each hand a staff round which a snake twines. One staff 
has a goat-head, the other a dog-head; and under the creature’s 
feet is an Ouroboros enclosing a man, perhaps ithyphallic and 
what seems a thunderbolt. The head of the Ouroboros is down at 
the bottom. The crown is made of a disk set on long horns and 
flanked with four uraei. There seem here defined two contrary 
motions: one of the scarab-sun (upwards to the large crown), and 
one of the cosmic serpent (downwards into the underworld of 
death). Interpretation of such obscure objects cannot but be 
doubtful, though there does seem a link with the complex of 
ideas and images we have discussed. 80 A passage in Hippolytos’ 
account of the Peratai also reveals this complex in a slightly 
confused form. Pie is discussing an up-and-down movement. 
The Son, he says, brings down from above the paternal Signs and 
again carries aloft those Signs when they have been “roused from 
a dormant condition and made into paternal characteristics— 
substantial from unsubstantial being; transferring them hither 
from thence”. The Son’s cerebellum is “in the form of a Serpent”, 
that is, a serpent-head, “and they allege that this, by an ineffable 


HERMES TRISMEGISTOS 


193 


,hhI inscrutable process, attracts through the pineal gland the 
pneumatic and life-giving substance emanating from the vaulted 
1 lumber [? both the skull and the heavenly vault]. And on receiv¬ 
ing (his, the cerebellum in an ineffable way imparts the Idea, just 
as lhe Son does, to Matter; or, in other words, the seeds and genera 
11I filings produced according to the flesh flow along into the 
spinal marrow.” Though the description is unclear, the idea of an 
up and-down, down-and-up flow of pneuma is certainly present, 
as also that of an entry of divine force through the cerebellum into 
file spinal column. The Peratai thus interpreted the phrase, “I am 
fiic Door,” in John . 81 

We may add that the idea of the staff of Hermes as a resolving 
i >r balancing power between two opposing principles (the snakes) 
appears in a tale, given by Hyginus, that Mercury saw two snakes 
lighting in Arcadia and put his staff between them, thus arresting 
fiic conflict; hence the caduceus as an emblem of peace. 82 


nvcot 

'A&* - . 

d/y?'y tsir f immjlU- 


t luHJUUL 

/xp ? «Y7ri'r&J\4. 
d&jnTt c tK£K,Arrjj-tw 

<^Xf7 rtH5vtK ' t | 8M ^ 


23. Combinations of signs to express modifications of gold 










Isis plays only a slight part in alchemic literature apart from one 
work, which we have in two versions. The opening mythological 
sections differ, but the more purely alchemic content is the same 
in both versions and has been taken to date closely to the main 
Demokritean texts. The title is Isis the Prophetess to her Son Horos 
and the narrative deserves quotation in full. The two versions do 
not differ radically, but where it has seemed advisable to add a 
passage from the version I have not used, I have done so in square 
brackets. 

You, my Son, you decided to set out for the battle with Typhon so as 
to dispute with him the kingdom of your father. As for me, after your 
departure, I went off to Hormanouthi, where the Sacred Art of Egypt 
is practised in secret. And after staying there a long enough time I 
wished to come back. 

Well, when I was about to leave, one of the prophets or angels who 
dwell in the first firmament caught sight of me [by the permission of 
a favouring season and according to the necessary movement of the 
spheres]. He advanced towards me and wanted to mate with me in the 
intercourse of love. 

[He was just about to do as he wanted] but I refused to yield I 
demanded first from him that he should tell me of the preparation of 
gold and silver. 

However he answered that he wasn’t allowed to explain such matters, 
for this mystery went beyond every description. [But next day there’d 
come to me an angel, his superior, Amnael, and he would be powerful 
enough to reply to my question.] 

Next day there came to me the first angel and prophet among them, 
by name Amnael, and once more I questioned him on the preparation 
of gold and silver. 

He however exhibited a certain sign that he had on his head, and 
a vase that had not been coated with pitch, filled with transparent water 
which he held between his hands. But he refused to tell me the truth’ 


ISIS 


x 95 


Next day, having returned towards me, Amnael was seized with 
desire on my account and [unable to contain his impatience] he hastened 
I (> achieve the object for which he had come. But as for me, I deliberately 
took no notice [and did not ask him about those things]. 

l ie however did not stop from trying to win me over and to invite 
me to the business, but I refused to let him take me. I triumphed over 
his lust till he was ready to show me the sign on his head and reveal to 
me, generously and without hiding anything, the sought-for mysteries. 

So he decided then to show me the sign and reveal the mysteries. He 
began by retailing the warnings and the oaths—-and this is how he 
phrased it: 

“I adjure you by heaven and earth, light and darkness. I adjure you 
by fire, water, air and earth. I adjure you by the height of the heaven 
and by the depth of the Tartaros. I adjure you by Hermes and Anubis, 
and by the roaring of the Serpent Ouroboros and of the Threeheaded 
Dog, Kerberos, guardian of Hades. I adjure you by the Ferry and by 
I he Boatman who crosses Acheron. I adjure you by the Three Goddesses 
of Fate, by their Whips and by their Sword.” 

When he had made me swear by all these words, he went on to 
enjoin upon me that I must never communicate the revelation to 
anyone except you, my beloved and legitimate son [so that he might be 
you, and you, he]. 

So go then, my child, to a certain labourer [Achaab] and ask him what 
lie has sown and what he has harvested, and you will learn from him 
that the man who sows wheat also harvests wheat, and the man who 
sows barley harvests also barley. 

Now that you’ve heard this discourse, my child, learn to comprehend 
I lie whole fabrication, demiourgia, and generation of these things, and 
know that it is the condition of man to sow a man, of a lion to sow a 
lion, of a dog to sow a dog, and if it happens that one of these beings is 
produced against the order of nature, he has been engendered in the 
state of a monster and cannot subsist. 

For a nature rejoices another nature, and a nature conquers another 
nature. 

| So then, having shared in this divine power and been favoured with 
this divine presence, illuminated in turn as a result of Isis’s demand] 
we must prepare the matter with the aid of minerals alone without 
using other substances [and attain our goal by the fact that matter 
added was of the same nature as that which was prepared]. Just as. I 
have told you, wheat engenders wheat, man engenders man, and simi¬ 
larly gold engenders gold. 

See, there is the whole of the mystery. 

Then, having taken some mercury . . . l 

And recipes for operations follow. 





ISIS 


7 97 


196 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

We find there, in truncated form, the triadic formula of Ostanes- 
IJemokritos; but the main bias of the doctrine is towards Hermes 
with his insistence that like begets like. Further, Hermes used the 
parable of Achaab, a name we do not seem to meet in the Jewish 
tradition, though the general principle of like from like is found 

telkf^ Pr ° Verbs ( xxii 8 ) and /^ (iv 17 )- Olympiodoros 

And Zosimos says in tlie book According to Energy: “For the truth of my 
words. I take Hermes to witness. He declares: Go to Achaab the 
labourer and learn that he who sows wheat brings wheat to birth. 
Similarly I too have told you that substances are tinctured by substances 
as it is written: as to the tincturing, it is divided into two kinds the 
bodily and the incorporeal. The Art limits itself to these two kinds. 2 

The formula “so that he may be you, and you, he”, occurs in a 
magical papyrus and in a Prophecy of Zoroaster surviving in Syriac 
texts. 3 The latter deals with the prophecy by Zaradoust of the 
virgin-born saviour whose birth will be marked by a brilliant 
star. “He will rise up from my family and my line. I am he and he 
is , am in him and he is in me.” Zarathustra is defining the 
saviour, Saoshyant, as his avatar; he has himself received in the 
Avesta the title Saoshyant that is to mark the world-renewer. 4 In 
our text it seems then that Horos is in some sort an incarnation 
of Amnael—unless all the true practitioners of the art are from one 
aspect spiritually identified with one another. Just as the devotee 
of a mystery-religion might seek to become the god, the bacchant 
to become a bacchos, so the true alchemic seeker became Hermes, 
Ostanes, Demokritos, or whomever he took to be the divine 
founder of his art. He became, in fact, the Alchemic Man. We may 
note that in the Syriac prophecy cited above the saviour is des¬ 
cribed: “You, my Son, you the seed of life, issue of the treasure 
Lor storehouse] of light and of spirit, that has been sown in the 
soil of fire and water.” This Iranian imagery would serve very 

well as a description of the vital seed, the egg or the divine water 
of alchemy. 5 

The name Amnael does not appear in the Book of Enoch or in 
ynkellos. It means: El-has-declared. Perhaps it appeared in some 
Egyptian version of the Fallen Angels who teach the crafts to men. 
Attempts have been made to identify the angel here with Hermes. 
Also with Agathodaimon and with the Egyptian god Psais, who 
could be called Heron in Greek. As Isis seems to belong to the 


school of Hermes, it would be most plausible to take Amnael as 
I lermes, the original revealer of her kind of doctrine. 5 There is 
also a tradition making Isis the daughter of Thoth. Ploutarch 
Hlates: 

M any have made her out to be the daughter of Hermes; many others, of 
Prometheus, whom they hold to be the inventor of wisdom and 
loreknowledge, while Hermes invented grammar and music. So, of 
1 Ik- Muses at Hermopolis [Hermes’ Town] they call the foremost one 
|. 4 j s and Justice-Wisdom. And they show the divine mysteries to such 
,1:1 ilr e truly and rightfully styled Carriers-of-sacred-things and Wearers- 
nl sacred-robes: these are those that carry in the soul, as it were in a 
copper, the sacred stories of the gods that cleanses the recipient from 
all superstition and magical follies. . . . 6 

I Icrc we find Isis and her mysteries connected with the temple of 
I lermes; and we may note the odd metaphor of the soul as a 
( i >pper in which are put the genuine myths that have a cleansing 
elicet—apparently by boiling or some such process. The magical 
papyri show Thoth-Hermes aiding Isis with his counsel to find 
her brother Osiris. Diodoros cites from his supposed stele , “I 

an) Isis, Queen of every land, she who was instructed by Hermes.. . 

The aretologies use the same opening, “I am Isis, the mistress of 
every land. I was taught by Hermes and by his aid I found out 
demotic letters, so that all things should not be written with the 
same letters.” 7 

'Hie formula of you-as-he, he-as-you, is found in Hermetic 
lexts. Hermes to his Son Tat deals with the revelation of a god: 
that is, with the process of initiation. The author deals with the 
creation of a human being in the womb: “examine with care the 
techne of this production, demiourgemata , and learn to know who 
fashions, demiourgon , this beautiful and divine image, eikon, that 
is man.” Then, turning to this divine craftsman, he cries: 

When shall I sing you ? One cannot conceive season or time that concern 
you. And for what shall I sing you? For the things you have created or 
1 hat you have not created? For those you have made appear or those 
you have hidden? And on account of what shall I sing you? As be¬ 
ll inging to myself, as having something all my own, as being other than 
you? For you are all that I am, you are all that I make, you are all that I 
say. 8 

These passages confirm the idea that the drama defined in Isis the 
Prophetess is that of revealing god and initiate. 





ISIS 


199 


198 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

In general Iris is represented as teaching her son Horos 
Dtodoros describes how she manifests herself fs a healer “Stand¬ 
ing above the sick m their sleep, she gives them aid for their 

se veTi her »°sf "P°° »ch as submit them- 

selves to her. She discovered the pharmakon of immortality and 

S°«Svh, h “h’*\ Titans ' attack . *><= was found under 

mor ' rtlf 8 f hB SOU ' and also mali “B “>» ™- 

. “}' (^ ere ar e several confusions there: Horos is merged 

with both Dionysos and his father Osiris; and the idea that Isis 

randent^od 0 ^ 1 ^ " deflVation from ma gical practices. He was 
“L , fu hlS ,° Wn rlght ') Di °doros adds that Horos 
instructed by his mother Isis in both medicine and divination’ 

thfOUgh his ° rades and his heal-’ 
; w T e Hei “ etlc books ca «7 on the tradition of the aretolo- 
gies that Isis as the great civilising teacher was herself taught by 

Hermes. In the Rare Kosmou she tells at length of the mission 
carried out by herself and Osiris, and defines his lore in t“m s of 
the analogy of Above with Below, of Macrocosm with Micro¬ 
cosm, which was a part of the alchemic creed. 

There are those who, having learned from Hermes that the atmosphere 
is full of daimons, have engraved it on hidden stelai. P 

lere are those alone, who, instructed by Hermes in the secret 
ordinances of God, have made themselves the initiators of the arts 
sciences, and occupations of all sorts for mankind. They it is who’ 
faming from Hermes that all thing, below have received ftL SS 
institutesT of beln s ln sympathy with those on high have 

f “ C,i ” S b “”‘ l “P vertically with the 


Mithraics) or on the arm or hands. On a kylix with white ground 
l lie Thracian Mainad who kills Orpheus is tattooed with a little 
slag on the upper part of her right arm; another vase has a Mainad 
pursuing Orpheus—she is tattooed on the right arm and both 
insteps with a ladder-pattern. 13 The ritual practice was later 
interpreted as a punishment for the death of Orpheus; and 
I’loutarch tells us the husbands of the guilty women tattooed 
1 hem for their crime and later husbands continued to do likewise 
with their descendants right down to his time; he comments that 
he cannot praise them as long-protracted punishment is “the 
prerogative of the deity”. 11 But Isiacs had their heads shaven, so 
1 hat Amnael might well have been tattooed on the brow or skull. 

()ath and tattooing are connected in a papyrus. 15 

This account is worth citing since it brings out the close 
relation of such a text as ours about Isis and Amnael to initiation- 
experience. The oath is fragmentary, but may be amended some¬ 
thing like the following: 

11 11 the name of the god who separated Earth from Heaven, [Light 
Horn Dark], Day from Night, [World from Chaos] Life from Death, 

| and Generation] from Corruption, I swear [in all good faith] to keep 
| among the secrets] the Mysteries transmitted to me [by the very 
pious] Father Sarapion [and the most reverend] Sacred-Herald Ka . . . 

| on whom this] devolves, and by my Fellow [initiates and my dear] 
brothers. Faithful to my oath [may I fare well, but] may the contrary 
befall me [if I reveal anything of it all] . . . 

Kautau [pates? . . . with the aid of needles] sharpened [has tattooed 
on my two hands] seals [so as to] mark [the mystery for ever . . . Then] 
to the initiates the Father will tell [the sacred discourses or logoi}. 


us the prophets can use philosophy (the occult sciences) at 

magem l Practices, “to nourish the soul and medicine 1 

cure the afflicted body”. e 1 

tinn h Sni S ° nC T" 6 POi , nt ! n the tale of Isis that needs consider: 
a'? ~ e _ em P hasls 18 !aid on the sign, seme ion, on the head c 
Amnae . Semeum means some distinctive sign, especially one of 
physical nature “The High Priest inquired of the leadet 
ere present if the child had a semeion, and they replied that h 
was without a sign, asemoR (a text dated a.d. 171) u Here w 
would expect the sign to be a tattoo-mark, such as wi pu, on th 
initiates of various mystery-cults: those of Mithras, Attis Dionyso< 
Atargatis. Often the tattooing was done on the bro 4 s (as lit] 


Despite the mutilations the essential points are clear. The sect 
in question has been taken as Kabeiric (by the emendation made 
of Ka . . .) or as composed of devotees of Sarapis (by the emenda- 
l ion of Ka . .. as Kanopos.) However, it seems more likely to be 
Mithraic, despite the comparative lack of remains left by that cult 
in Egypt. The Mithraics had the title of Father for a high stage of 
initiation, they also had sacred heralds. The hierokeryx played an 
important part at Eleusis, assisting at the initiations, calling for the 
holy Silence, and reciting the secret formula the initiates repreated 
after him. We also find him joined with priests at the oath-taking 
required from functionaries; and he was often named in connec- 
1 ion with mystery-cults, e.g. at Andania. Kautau ... is probably the 





JOO ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

start of an unusual form of Kautopates, who in the Mithraic 
mysteries stood for the Setting Sun as opposed to Kautes, the 
Sun of the Morning. 

We may note also an odd passage in Dion concerning Augustus 
and the year 7 a.d. 

He made a vow with reference to the Megalensian Games; for some 
woman had cut certain letters on her arm and pracdsed a kind of 
divination. He knew well indeed that she had not been possessed by a 
god but had done the thing of set purpose. Still, as the populace was 
terribly worked up over both the wars and the famine, which had now 
set in again, he too affected to credit the common report and proceeded 
to do something which would make the crowd cheerful. He regarded 
such measures as necessary. 

There is a further aspect of Amnael. Perhaps in a primitive 
version of the encounter he was simply a revealing god, Hermes; 
but here his advent has been linked with the Fall of the lustful 
Angels. Not that the mystery-revealer might not exact a sexual 
price for his secret. Clement of Alexandreia says that the Dionysiac 
Phallus was the emblem of the god’s intercourse with a person 
who told him the way to the Underworld. 

Dionysos was anxious to go down into Hades, but did not know the 
way. So a certain Proshymnos promises to tell him, not without 
payment. The price was not a pretty one, though Dionysos thought it 
was. The god was asked to enjoy the fellow; and he swore, in the event 
of returning, to do to Proshymnos what he wanted, conforming his 
promise with an oath. Learning the way, he went down, then returned 
He didn t find Proshymnos, who was dead. To fulfil the vow to his 
lover, Dionysos hurried, all agog, to the tomb. Cutting a branch from a 
fagtree at hand, he shaped it as a penis and then carried out his promise 
to the corpse. As a mystic memorial of this Passion phalloi are set up to 
Dionysos in cities. 

The descent into the Underworld has its ritual mime in the passage 
of the phallus into the bowels of the corpse, into the cavern of the 
dead. (The word, proshymnos, only occurring thus as name would 
mean something like “a hymn sung in addition”; the verb 
proshymnem' means “to sing besides”. Proshymnos thus suggests 
the personification of some moment of ritual celebration.) To 
enter into a mother-goddess would be to go down inside the 
earth, into the cave-womb or secret chamber of initiation. How¬ 
ever that may be, in one of our texts an effort has been made to 


ISIS 


201 


connect the Angel in a precise way with the movement of bodies 
or sphere in the sky. We are told that he needed to revolve 
round to the correct point in time and space before he could see 
Isis, and, it follows, he could descend, only at that moment and 
position. Here it seems that an unconsidered effort has been made 
lo link revelation with astrologic position; and we could assume 
that the lesser angel represents the spirit of a dekan or some 
smaller measure of sky-time, while Amnael represents the spirit 
of a planet. But there is no precedent for such a spirit leaving his 
post on a mission of revelation or a love-adventure, so that we 
can only assume that the author of the text in question has over¬ 
reached himself in trying to work out a precision which ends by 
becoming illogical. There is no need then to interpret the sign as 
a planetary symbol or something of the sort set on the angel s 
head, e.g. the waterplants on the head of the Waterman, 
Aquarius (Waterpourer in Greek) in his Egyptian guise. 16 
Aquarius is shown holding two water-jars; Amnael has one such 
jar, which has no role in the story unless it is intended to define 
his character as an inhabitant of the first firmament, Still, there 
seems no point in linking Amnael with Aquarius. More likely 
1 he picture is that of the Egyptian prophet who bore the sacred 
vase of Isis in procession. 17 Apuleius calls this hydreion or water-jar 
“the revered effigy of the godhead”— 

not formed like any beast, bird, wild thing or human shape, but, the 
result of a sagacious invention and by its very novelty something to be 
venerated and an ineffable emblem of a religion of a higher kind, 

1 hat should be shrouded in a great silence: and so fashioned in glittering 
gold: a vessel wrought with hollow bottom, hollowed with the utmost 
skill, with pictures outside marvellously done in the Egyptian style; 
the mouth not very high but jutting in a long funnel; on the other side 
a handle which stuck far out, on it standing an asp rearing its swelling 
and scaly neck, and entwining it all as in a knot . 18 

In an Isiac procession (in the Vatican) we see the priest holding 
with both arms, before his chest, a large oinochoe decorated with a 
uraeus-head at the point where the handle joins the orifice. This 
hydreion, which Apuleius says represented Isis herself, certainly 
held the holy water of the Nile. 19 We may say then that Amnael as 
prophet holds the hydreion of Isis, emblem of a cult “that should 
be shrouded in a great silence”. However, he does thus oddly 
merge with Aquarius, who in his Egyptian form had affinities 
with Hapi, the god of Nilewater. 










202 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

If we may judge by the stories, it was the correct thin g to go to 
the temples of Egypt to be initiated by a vision into some higher 
knowledge. Demokritos and Ostanes are described as coming 
rom some foreign place. We have seen how often the stelai of 
ultimate knowledge are located in a temple. That of Memphis 
was especially venerated by the seekers of knowledge and Zosi- 
mos describes the things he saw there. The mysterious John 
Arch-priest of Tuthia in Euagia “and the sanctuaries there found”' 
seems of Egyptian provenance—whatever place-names have 
been corrupted in his description. An alchemic text states, “It is 
necessary to know in what parts of the Land of the Thebaid is 
prepared the mysterious powder: Kleopolis (Herakleopolis) 
Alkoprios (Lykopolis), Aphrodite, Apolenos (Apollonopolis) 
and Elephantine.” 20 There seems behind this list a memory of 
places of metallurgical exploitation in Egypt. Afrikanos who 
seems an historical character, Sextus Julius Africanus, stated 
(cited by the Synkellos), “Souphis” of the 4 th dynasty of Memphis 
ruled for 63 years. He reared the Great Pyramid, which Hero- 
dotos says was built by Kheops. Souphis conceived a contempt 
tor the gods perhaps Afrikanos was taking the Great Pyramid 
as a sort of Tower of Babel. “He also composed the Sacred Book 
which I acquired on my visit to Egypt because of its great renown ” 
Eusebios says much the same of Souphis; but the Armenian 
version of his Chronika, adds, “Souphis behaved arrogantly 
towards the gods themselves; then in penitence he composed the 
Sacred Book, in which the Egyptians believe that they possess a 
great treasure.” 21 The place-name Hormanouthi, where Isis met 
Amnael, has been taken as an error for Hormachythi (“at the place 
of Horos of Edfu”) and this site as the seat of alchemy in Apollo- 
nopolis. Orpheus in the Orphic Argonautika speaks of the under¬ 
world-) ourney and the necessary revelation at Memphis as the 
same sort of thing: 

I’ve told you other things I’ve meditated 
and grasped when I went by Tainaron’s dark road 
to Hades, trusting in my life, my love 
for her my wife; and how I brought forth the holy 
Egyptian Word, when I entered divine Memphis. 

Zosimos writes, “At the eastern entry of Isis’ Temple you’ll 
see characters dealing with the white substance [silver]; at the 
western entry you’ll find the yellow mineral [gold] near the orifice 


ISIS 


203 


(»r the Three Springs.” 22 We may add that the Gnostic writings 
show much interest in the life led in and round the Egyptian 
temples, those centres of economic activity as well as of religious 
rites. 23 If Afrikanos the alchemist was also the historian of the 
early 3rd century, we know that he did go to Egypt, presumably 
from Emmaos in Palestine where he mostly lived; he visited 
Alexandreia to meet the philosopher Heraklas. 24 St Jerome in his 
/ Afe of Hilarion says, “He went to Memphis so that, after confes¬ 
sing his wound [of love] he might return to the girl, armed with 
1 lie magical arts; and so, after a year, taught by the prophets 
| Dates] of Aesculapius [Asklepios, Imhotep],” he left. 25 



The Sungod, with ram-head, standing under a circular canopy made 
hy the serpent Mahen, and sailing on the river of the underworld; his 
crew consists of Isis, Sia, Heka (god of magic), Horos of Heken, Ka- 
Maat, Nehes (lookout), and Hu with magical steering-pole (Book of 

Gates) 


But the most extraordinary, because most detailed, account of a 
quest for revelation in Egypt is that of Thessalos. Though he was 
seeking medical and botanical knowledge, we may cite it here 
because it helps considerably to illuminate the psychological 
experience which is so important for all these Hermetic quests 
and discoveries, including alchemy. It is possible that he was, in 
I ,,ct, Thessalos of Tralles in Lydia, who lived in the 1st century, 
dying under Nero at Rome. In the time of Plinius his tomb was 
still to be seen on the Via Appia with the arrogant title of Iatro- 
nik.es, Healing-Victor. Son of a weaver, he had followed his 
lather’s trade for a while; then, despite his slight education, he 
took up medicine and soon acquired both a great name and a 
large fortune. He was extremely vain and constantly asserted that 










ISIS 


205 


204 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

medicine was the highest art and he the best physician. He be¬ 
longed to the school of the Methodikoi, but developed its doctrine 
and practice so thoroughly that he has been taken as one of the 
school’s founders. His way, in extreme cases, was to bring about a 
thorough commotion or disturbance in the constitution of the 
organism: synkrisis. For this purpose he used, internally and ex¬ 
ternally, strong vegetable remedies for three days, together with 
a very strict regimen and the use of emetics at intervals. A period 
of fasting following, and then a course of restoratives. His 
reputation seems to have soon waned, though Galen often men¬ 
tioned him with scorn and ridicule . 26 

This proud and opinionated character seems to fit fairly well 
with the tone of the narrative of the revelation; and the emphasis 
on vegetable remedies harmonises with a deep botanical in- 
terest The identification is thus by no means impossible, though 
the obsession with magical procedures is hard to reconcile with 
the career of an acceptable if eccentric doctor at Rome. At least 
we should expect Plinius to have some sinister tales to tell or 
Juvenal to have written a blistering line or two on the doctor 

from Lydia. However that may be, the narrative is a fascinating 
document: & 

To Caesar Augustus, Greeting! Many have tried during their life 
Augustus Caesar, to deliver up the secrets of lots of marvellous things’ 
but none of them has been able to complete his project because of the 
latal darkness that came to overwhelm his spirit; and I then seem to be 
the only one of all those who have lived since the beginning of time to 
have composed a marvellous treatise. Indeed, though I had undertaken 
a task that goes beyond the limits of human powers, I have been able to 
crown it with the end that it required—not, it is true, without many 
trials and dangers. 27 7 

After being trained in the science of grammar in Asia and becoming 
more learned than the people of that country, I decided to turn my 
nowledge to account for a while. So I set sail to that town where all 
ocked, Alexandreia, Furnished with a good sum of money, I frequented 
the most accomplished philologists, and everyone praised me for my 
love of study and quickness in understanding. 

I was also steadily assiduous in learning from the dialectical physi¬ 
cians; for I was consumed by an incredible passion for that science 
Then, as the time had come for me to return home—for I was already, 
far enough advanced in medicine—I began to scour the libraries in 
quest of knowledge. There I came on a book by Nechepso, describing 
24 ways of treating the whole body and every malady, according to each 


Zodiacal sign, with stones and plants. I was confounded by the wonder¬ 
ful grandeur of the undertaking. But it held apparently nothing but the 
vain phantom of a royal futility. For I prepared to no purpose the Heliac 
I’ill recommended by the author together with other recipes. I failed in 
all my attempts to treat illnesses. 

This mistake I felt as something more cruel than death. I was eaten 
up with chagrin. Indeed I had trusted so blindly in the book that I had 
boasted about the virtue of these remedies to my parents, and had 
told them I’d return home as soon as I had tried them out. Now I could 
not remain at Alexandreia because of my colleagues mockeries, for it s 
1 he way of fine exploits to arouse jealousy. Besides I wasn t eager to re¬ 
turn as I had been convinced of my incapacity to carry out my promises. 

So I began to travel about Egypt, driven on by this goad that 
wounded my soul, seeking some way of making my rash hope, or, if 
I failed, resolved to abandon life by suicide. As my soul predicted to 
me ceaselessly that I’d have communication with the gods, I went on 
raising my hands to heaven, begging the gods to accord me, by a 
dream-vision or by an inspiration from on high, some favour of which 
I might be proud, returning, joyous, to Alexandreia and my homeland. 

Thus I arrived at Diospolis [Thebes], the most ancient capital I mean 
of Egypt, which possesses a host of temples; and there I established 
•myself. In effect there lived there priests, friends of letters and learned 
in many sciences. Time passed. My friendship with the priests went on 
increasing all the while. One day I asked them if something of the 
operative force of magic survived. I noticed that most of them were 
shocked at my boldness in conceiving such hopes; but one, who in¬ 
spired confidence by the gravity of his manners and his great age, did 
not disappoint my friendship. He assured me that he had the power 
of producing visions by means of a basin filled with water. 

I then invited him to stroll with me in the most deserted part of the 
city without telling him what I wanted. We came to a woodland 
environed with a profound peace, and there I suddenly threw myself 
down on the ground, and, weeping, embraced his feet. And as he, 
bewildered at this unexpected act, asked me why I had done it, I 
declared that my life was in his hands, that it was absolutely necessary 
for me to converse with a god, and that, if this desire was not satisfied, I 
was ready to give up living. Raising me up from the earth, he quieted 
me with the most amiable discourse, promised cordially to yield to my 
prayer, and bade me fast for three days. 

As for me, my soul was completely melted at the declaration of 
these promise’s. I kissed his hand and heaped him with thanks, weeping 
like a fountain. For it’s a law of nature that an unhoped-for joy provokes 
more tears than grief. Then, emerging from the wood, we began to 
fast; and those three days, in my impatient condition seemed to me 
as many years. 










206 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

When the third day was come, from the moment of dawn, I went to 
greet the priest. He had prepared a suitable chamber with everything 
needed for the consultation. On my side, always prepared, I had 
A t° Ut lnf “ mln g the P«est, paper and ink for taHng notes 
MCC ’ ° f an y thi ng said. The priest asked if I wanted to 
talk with the ghost of a dead man or with a god 

“With Asklepios,” I told him, adding that he would crown his 
kindnesses if he let me converse with the god on my own. He agreed 
without pleasure as I could tell clearly from his face, but at leal he 
promised. Then he shut me in the chamber, bade me sit down opposite 

e throne where the god would take his seat, and invoked Asklepios 
thanks to the virtue of mysterious words. After that he hurried out’ 
locking the door with a key. ’ 

And there I was seated, annihilated in body and soul at the sight of 
so wonderful a thing—for no human word could render the features of 
that face or the splendours of the ornaments that set it off—when the 
god, lifting his right hand, saluted me thus: 

O blessed Thessalos, today a god honours you, and soon, when men 
earn o your success, they will hold you in reverence as a god yourself 
Ask me what you please, I will reply to you faithfully in all matters.” 

1 could scarcely speak, so much was I carried out of myself and so 
much fascinated by the god’s beauty. Still, I asked him why I had 
failed in trying the recipes of Nechepso. 

The god answered me, “King Nechepso, highly intelligent man as he 
was, and possessing every magic power, had not however received 
from any divine voice the secrets that you want to learn. Endowed with 
a natural sagacity he had grasped the affinities \sympatheiai] of stones 
and plants with the stars; but he did not know the moments or the 
places were the plants must be gathered. The growth or the withering 
of ah fruits of the season depend on the efflux [aporrhoia] of the stars. 
Further the divine spirit [pneuma], which in its extreme subtlety passes 
through every substance, is spread in particular abundance in the 
spots which the astral influx successively reached in the course of the 
cosmic revolution.” 28 

The god then expounds a pneumatic explanation of the diversity 
o virtues in plants according to the different climates in which 
they grow; and ends with technical advice as to the ways of 
gathering them, with a final prayer. Thessalos has promised to 
hold the revelation secret: “to keep with care the discourse de¬ 
livered to you without transmitting it to anyone who is a stranger 
to our art.” 5 

We may note a few points in the story which help to authen¬ 
ticate a ist-century background, though they do not prove it. 


ISIS 


207 


The priests are indignant at Thessalos’ question because magic is a 
capital offence. The description of Thebes accords with that given 
by Strabon: 

I ; .vcn now traces of its magnitude are pointed out, extending as they do 
for a distance of 80 stadia in length; and there are several temples, but 
most of these too were mutilated by Kambyses, and now it is a collec- 
l ion of villages, part of it in Arabia (the eastern side of the Nile) where 
was the city, and a part on the far side of the river, where was the 
Memnonion. 29 

What perhaps most strongly suggests a fairly early date is the 
directness and coherence of the narrative, despite supernatural 
aspects. Divinations have been classified under three headings: 
(a) theurgic, in a sort of ecstatic state, when the gods makes his 
immistakeable advent: the person concerned may feel himself 
awake or dreaming; (b) magical, where the god or the divine 
force makes an indirect advent or impact, through material 
(>bjccts (lamp flame or basin of water) or through a medium whom 
lie possesses; (c) goetic, where the force animates an object by 
imprinting on it certain movements or modifies certain of its 
proportions . 30 Thessalos’ experience was of the first type; and it 
lias been asked whether he was in an hallucinatory state as a 
result of fasting, excitement, strain, or whether the initiator had 
hypnotised him and suggested the vision to his already heightened 
sensibilities. We cannot tell. Certainly, as we know from the 
evidence of what primitive folk have been capable of imagining 
and feeling as reality during initiation-ordeals accompanied by 
fastings, men like Thessalos were able in these centuries to con¬ 
vince themselves of strange things. What is hard to harmonise is 
die direct experience of the advent, which we can pass off as the 
result of a dream-hallucinatory state controlled by an intense 
hope of contacting the sources of truth and certainty, and the 
aftermath of detailed recipes and so on. Unless we are to take the 
whole thing as a fabrication—and that is a very unlikely hypo¬ 
thesis—we must assume that the priest-initiator, after playing his 
part in directing the liberated fantasies of Thessalos, provides the 
recipes and assures his disciple that they have been left by the 
god. Thessalos, in a mixture of good faith and desire to tell as 
convincing a tale as possible, then makes the transition from 
vision to recipes much less abrupt or unclear than it actually 


was. 














208 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

There certainly were magicians who faked their effects. 
Hippolytos informs us of the magician who “after making 
obscurity in the chamber”—^, the same word as that used 
by Thesallos for the place of advent —“boasts of bringing 
about his presentation with the aid of gods or demons, and if 
anyone happens to ask to be shown Asklepios, invokes him 
by this prayer. We are then given eleven hexameters of invoca¬ 
tion or epiklesis. “When he has finished with this pleasantry, an 
Asklepios of fire appears on the wall at the back.” Then we’are 
told of a performance of lekanomancy, basin-divination, and 
recipe for falsifying seals. At last Hippolytos comes back to the 
explanation of the fire-revealed god. The magician, “after draw¬ 
ing on the wall the silhouette he wants, coats its surface secretly 
with a pharmakon composed of the following mixture: Lakonian 
Purple and Bitumen of Zante. Then, as if in an ecstatic delirium, 
he moves near the wall a flaming torch and the drug takes fire, 
throwing out a great light.” 31 As the bitumen could be dangerous, 
phosphorescent substances were commonly used. Elsewhere we 
are told: “If you want to draw on the wall any living thing 
( \oidion ) you like, even with night coming on, whoever sees it in 
the dark will run off, thinking it demons or gods.” 32 

But we must remember that Hippolytos is a Christian anxious 
to debunk such phenomena. Fallings certainly existed, but also 
experiences such as that of Thessalos, which, however induced, 
were subjectively honest and sincere. 

Two prayers or incantations to be uttered at herb-gathering 
may be given here to bring out how close were the principles in 
such procedures to alchemic doctrine. The first develops the 
notion of Sympathy into that of the Union of Opposites. It was 
to be said before the rising of the sun: 

Lord, Master of the Universe, Author of all Creation, invisible and 
visible, you who of this Visible Creation have made certain parts 
naturally allied and harmonious one with another so that they own the 
same power in their beings that are born by means of it, and who have 
made other parts in return not sympathetic, not harmonious, except 
that, in this state, from their fusion together and from their union, there 
results a well-tempered mixture, and these things are the heralds 
proclaiming from afar your Majesty: you then at this moment still 
when I gather the plant here NN which you have made smypathise 
with the planet NN, consent that it may be strong and filled with your 
might and fully efficacious for use in medicines which are drawn from 


ISIS 


209 


ii against the maladies that afflict your creature, with the aid of this 
aaine beginning that obeys your command, for your name is blessed 
and glorified ages in ages Amen. 33 

The same prayer is to be said in preparing the medicine and in 
using it. 

The second prayer shows the magician making himself into 
I iermes by the ritual act. It is remarkable also for the lavish way 
m which it personifies the flower or herb as deity after deity, thus 
both glorifying and magnifying the virtues inherent in it, and 
placating it, winning it over so that it will not resent the act of 
gathering, but will allow all the magnified virtues to be taken 
over: 

You have been sown by Kronos, conceived in the womb of Hera, 
kept from all evil by Ammon, brought forth by Isis, nourished by Zeus 
of Rain, raised to maturity by Helios and Dew. 

You are the Dew of all the Gods, you are the Heart of Hermes, you 
urc the Seed of the Ancestral Gods, you are the Eye of Helios, you are 
1 lie Light of the Moon, you are the ashes of Osiris, you are the Beauty 
mid the Splendour of the Heaven, you are the Soul of the Daimon of 
( )si ris which goes dancing in every place, you are the Vital Breath of 
Ammon. 

As you have lifted up Osiris, so lift up yourself. Rise up as Helios 
rises every day. Your Height is equal to that of Helios at the zenith, 
your Roots are as deep as the Roots of the Abyss, your Powers are in 
die Heart of Hermes, your Stalk and your Branches are the Bones of 
M nevis, your Flowers are the Eye of Horos, your Seed is the Seed of 
Pan [Min]. 

I wash you of this Bitch as I wash the Gods. Be you then also 
purified by my prayer for your Salvation and give us your Force like 
Ares and Athena. I am Hermes. I gather you with Good Fortune, with 
I he Good Spirit, at the right hour of the day, on the day when every¬ 
thing must succeed. 34 

Note the mixture of Greek and Egyptian deities. Another magical 
text has, “I am Isis who is called Dew.” The Daimon of Osiris is 
the ICa (which we may call roughly the Double in Egyptian reli- 
gi ( >us psychology). The little plant is swollen in the ritual moment 
into a cosmic tree, linking the Above and the Below. 

In all primitive religion there is a sense in which the earth 
i 1 self and the spirit-world are one, though the unity is only 
realised normally at a ritual moment. The relation is thus a 
dynamic one, continuous and yet only sporadically grasped. 


















210 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

With the growth of civilisation the unity tends to break up and 
the secular world from which the impact of spirit or god has been 
eliminated extends its range. Apart from ritual moments, it is at 
moments of fear and uncertainty, when the unknown is felt to be 
invading the individual or collective existence, that the sense of a 
pervasive spirit-world reasserts itself. In ritual-myth and in 
meditations about the gods, efforts are made, consciously or un¬ 
consciously, to define the relations of the two worlds and to set 
up certain boundaries. A culture like that of the Mesopotamians 
with its steady concern for the world of the stars, is in a position 
to work out elaborate systems in which the other world (largely 
seen now as a sky-world) is both separated from the earth and 
then reconnected with it, both in general schemes and in particular 
networks. Hence it seems that this culture, or set of cultures, first 
at all fully elaborated schemes of heaven-earth correspondences 
A text of the Kassite era (the second half of the and millennium 
b.c.), together with the fragment of an Assyrian tablet and a 
tablet of the Seleukid epoch, serves to show how far back such 
schemes went and how strong was their persistence. 

Here is a summary of the third tablet: 

Gypsum is the god Ninurtu [wargod]. The pear is the demon asakku. 
The meal mash is Lugalgirra and Meslamtae [lesser gods of Nergal’s 
cycle, underworld gods]. Three meal-cakes are the gods Anu [heaven], 
Enlil [earth] Ea [waters], A great bull’s skin is also the god Anu The 
copper drum is Enlil. Seven big reed-poles are the seven great gods of 
Ishara [an aspect of Ishtar, a goddess of fertility]. The scapegoat is 
Ninamashazagga, spirit of herds. 

The censer is Kusud “the great libation-pourer” [or a grain goddess: 
it appears under both male and female aspects]. The torch is Nusku god 
of fire in the pantheon of the town of Nippur, but also Gibil god of 
fire in the pantheon of the town of Eridu. 

Then comes the assimilation of metals to certain gods, though the 
text is defective, and then the various parts of the body with their 
correspondences. Now let us look at the tablet of the Kassite 
epoch: 

The vase agubbu is Ninhaburkuddu, queen of incantations. .. . The 
tamarisk is Anu. The palmtree-head is Tammuz. The plant mashtakal 
(? sage) is Ea, the reed salalu is Ninurta. The plant */[? craetegus] is the 
goddess Nina. The wood bur is the god Girra. Silver is the Great God 
[moon]. Gold is Enmesharra [sun]. Copper is Ea. Lead is Ninmah 
[here a great mother-goddess] . . . 


ISIS 


211 


The cypress is Adad. Variegated wool is Lamashtu, daughter of 
Anu. The aromatic Zu is Ninurta. The censer is the god Urash. The 
torch is the god Gibil. The pure incense is the god Negun [son of 
Ninlil, consort of Enlil]. The amphora [?] is Igi-balag, gardener of 
Ncrgal. The skin of a great bull is Ninda-Gud [priest of Enlil], Gypsum 
is the stormgod [Ninurta], Bitumen is the rivergod. The scapegoat is 
kushu [demon of plague, son of Anu], The Living Lamb is Girra [god 
of herds, not Girra of plague]. The goatbitch of sacrifice by burning is 
M uhru. 

The barley grains, the dining-table, the pots gag% are Ninurra-Ea 
| here gods of potters]. The weapon with seven laurel-wood heads is the 
storm, the weapon is Marduk. The goat of Ungal [patron god] of Nip¬ 
pur. The crane is the god Ninsig [Ea of metallurgists]. The ... of 
cedar is the weapon of Zu [the birdgod who stole the tablets of fate] . . . 

The white wine and its vessel are the eyes of the consultant [?]. The 
white fig is his chest. The nur fig is his knees. The fig is his loins. The 
sweet wine is his lower-stomach. The god Kushu [is] in the ceiling of 
l lie room. The god Muhru before the city-gate. The god Sakkut in 
midst of the ponds. The god Silakku in the ruins. The god Equrum in 
I lie leg-muscles. The god Abbagula in the wall.. . 35 

The text ends with the formula: “Let the initiated explain it to 
the initiated; he who has not been initiated must not read it.” 
And we are told it is a copy of an ancient tablet owned by the 
temple Eshumera at Nippur. We see that everything on earth has 
its divine exemplar; the two aspects, the divine and the earthly, 
are both fused together and separate, the earthly reflecting or 
expressing the divine. Under the extreme intellectualising pressure 
at work in Greek philosophic circles, the divine was cut away and 
became the transcendent Ideas of Plato. With the Stoics a more 
organic sense reasserted itself; and among the alchemists the 
divine aspect (that of energy, of formative and transformative 
process with its dynamic element of extending significant struc¬ 
ture) became fully fused afresh in theory with the material aspect. 
That is, in alchemy we find the earlier correspondence-schemes 
lifted on to a new level, still holding many fantasy-elements, but 
tending towards scientific systems of inter-relationship. 











Ancient and Contemporary Crafts 


Before we turn to the historical figures of alchemy, we should 
glance briefly at the various craft-traditions which underlay the 
ideas and methods of the art. From the very first, metallurgy 
must have involved various magics and ritual-practices with their 
expression in myth. The extraction of metal from ore was itself 
a form of transmutation, which must have produced a great awe 
and sense of wonder translated into rituals meant to safeguard, 
analyse and help the processes. The same situation appeared 
in other crafts connected with fire as a transforming agent: cook¬ 
ing which changed flesh or plant in various ways, and pottery¬ 
making which changed a soft, pervious substance into a hard, 
impervious one, giving earth something of the character of a 
stone. In all these processes the qualities of the materials were 
changed. Such important craft-systems, considered to involve 
dangerous potencies and crucial moments of change, were hedged 
round with ritual secrecies, oaths, mysteries of all kinds. The 
operators formed a fraternity fiercely guarding its lore. There was 
clearly a period when the smith was a sort of semi-divine shaman 
owning hidden forms of contact with the spirit-world. We can¬ 
not here explore this field, but may point to the abundant evidence 
in Africa and Asia for this phase; to the identification of the smith 
with the shaman-heroes of the Finnish Kalevala . 1 

There would appear to have existed at several different cultural levels 
(which is a mark of very great antiquity), a close connection between 
the art of the smith, the occult sciences (shamanism, magic, healing 
etc.) and the art of song, dance, and poetry. These overlapping 
techniques, moreover, appear to have been handed down in an aura of 
sacred mystery comprising inititations, specific rituals and “trade 
secrets.” . . . One element is constant—that is the sacredness of metal 
and consequently the ambivalent, eccentric and mysterious character of 
all mining and metallurgical operations. Certain mythological themes of 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 


213 


11 ic earlier stone ages were integrated in the mythology of the age of 
metals. What is especially significant is the fact that symbolism of the 
“thunderstone”, in which projectiles and stone missiles are compared 
with the thunderbolt, underwent a great development in the mytholo¬ 
gies of metallurgy. The weapons which the smith-gods or divine-smiths 
forge for the celestial gods are thunder and lightning. (Eliade). 2 

We cannot follow up these points; but we must remember 
that the craft-lores of miners and metallurgists had existed for 
millennia and had developed rich traditions. Sumerian terms, 
carried on by the later Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians, 
can often be identified; and we meet many minerals as well as 
terms for processes, such as cooking, leaching, washing, roasting, 
which play an important part in due time in alchemy. 3 Texts show, 
however, that there was a kind of secret language, using effects of 
similar sounds. Thus, a recipe for making glass dating back to the 
17th century b.c. uses eru, eagle, for erii, copper. A-ba-an (stone) 
is written ha-bar-an, the signs ha and bar having also the values of 
a and ba. Crude sulphur is called the bank-of-the-river. We also 
meet craft-jargon, abbreviations and Sumerian values imposed on 
Akkadian terms in technical works as well as in those of astro¬ 
nomers and physicians. Cryptograms occur in medical texts: 
lion-fat, human-fat for opium and blood-of-a-black-snake for 
castor-oil are common. “Let him that knows show him that 
knows; but he that knows shall not show him that does not 
know,” says a 7th-century work. On tablets concerned with 
glass-making in the Kassite period of the 2nd millennium there 
are prohibitions against making the lore known. There is also an 
insistence on correct and exact copying that springs from a belief 
in the magical efficacy of the text as it has been used. 4 

Artificial alloys were also known. Inlays and metalwork show 
the use of both natural and synthetic alloys; the delight in rich 
colours led to various combinations and experiments. Sardeis, 
the city of the Lydian empire ruled by Kroisos, which played an 
important part in the creation of coinage proper, has revealed a 
6th-century workshop near the torrent of the Paktolos, which 
ancient writings reported to be rich in gold-bearing sands. 
Fragments of gold, parts of crucibles, blow-pipe nozzles and other 
apparatus were found; in the area were more than 300 small clay 
basins in which gold was refined from ore by blowing intense 
flame through pipes, and furnaces in which silver had been 
8 













214 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 


215 


separated from gold. Some of the gold appeared to contain bits 
of silver and it has been conjectured that the kin g may have 
deliberately debased one of the earliest currencies. 6 

The Babylonians knew an excellent test for gold—cupellation. 
A mixture of metals, including gold and silver, is heated strongly 
for a while in air, plus some lead, in a cupel, a porous vessel made 
of bone-ash. The lead and copper, oxidised, pass through the 
cupel, while the gold-silver remains as a metallic button. The silver 
can then be removed by heating again in a cupel with some sulphur 
compounds, which convert the silver into its sulphide and allow 
it in turn to pass through the cupel. Thus only the gold is left. 
This quite sophisticated process was invented in north-east 
Asia Minor in the first half of the third millennium b.c. 6 The 
fining-pot of the refiner’s-fire are often mentioned in the Bible. 7 

In the 14th century b.c. the pharaoh Akhenaten was in corres¬ 
pondence with Burrahuriash II, king of Babylon. A letter from 
the latter complained, “The 20 mnas of gold were not complete. 
When it was put in the furnace, it did not come forth 5 mnas”* 
The metallurgists of these days would not easily be deceived by 
faked or adulterated metals; but at the same time their power of 
manipulating metals, e.g. converting silver into its sulphides, must 
have stimulated ideas of yet further conversions. Egypt was the 
most abundant source of gold in the ancient world, and we should 
have expected its smiths to acquire what technological s kill s 
were available, for dealing with it. 9 They were able to make 
extensive use of gold in colouring decorative work; the hues 
range from bright yellow, grey, various shades of red, reddish- 
brown, brick-colour, to dull purple-plum and an odd rose-pink. 10 
Much was no doubt due to chance and the natural mixtures of 
silver, copper, and iron in varying quantities, but in some cases 
the stain was caused by organic matter. The rose-pink was a 
heat-resisting coat of oxide of iron, produced by dipping the 
object in an iron solution and heating it. 11 This process was used 
many centuries before the oldest written recipes for tinting 
vessels. Old Akkadian texts describe ways of staining mineral, and 
stones by cooking them in solutions or embedding them in chemi¬ 
cals to produce faked gems. The importance of colour is brought 
out by the syllabaries. The sixteen Akkadian terms for gold include 
nine referring to colour or shade. The colours were valued for 
their beauty but they also had their magical virtues. 

The Assyrian library of Assurbanipal has left many tablets 


dealing with glass. In all glass-making the essentials are silica, 
an alkali, and lime (or less often lead oxide); a decolorising agent 
like manganese is generally added. Analysis of window-glass 
from Pompeii shows silica 69, soda 17, lime 7, alumina 3, iron 
oxide 1, manganese and copper traces. Many colouring agents have 
been found in ancient glass. Assyrian blue glass used copper, 
red glass used cuprous oxide. Assyrian white glass has tin oxide, 
lead antimonate has been found in yellow. One recipe seems to 
have in rudimentary form the Purple-of-Cassius, the aim being 
apparently a pink or red coral. The ingredients are 7,200 parts of 
ordinary glass, 52 of oxide of tin, 20 of antimony, an unreadable 
portion of salt or saltpetre, and 1 part of gold. The proportion 
here of gold (-014%) is the usual order of magnitude in the pre¬ 
paration of ruby glass. A Mesopotamian text going back to the 
17th century b.c., to the reign of Gulkizar, gives us several recipes 
of metallurgical chemistry: 

To a mina of %uku glass add 10 shekels of lead, 15 of copper, | shekel of 
saltpetre, \ of lime. Put it on to smelt and you’ll obtain Copper of 
1 ,ead. 

To a mina of %uku glass add 10 shekels of lead, 14 of copper, 2 of 
lime, 1 of saltpetre. Put it on to smelt and you’ll obtain Copper of 
Lead. 12 

These recipes are not alchemic, but they show already a sophisti¬ 
cated sense of fusing and modifying metals. 

We noted that we should expect Egyptian smiths to be in the 
forefront of gold-techniques. However gold does not seem to 
have been refined or purified till the Persian period (525-332 
b.c.) when the method presumably came in through Persian and 
Syrian influences—and with it much of the myth and ritual con¬ 
nected with the techniques. 13 Agatharkides described in the later 
Ptolemaic period the way of refining gold with lead, salt, dn and 
barley-bran; no provision seems made for recovering the silver, 
which would have been lost. Debasement of gold, however, is 
found far back, near the end of the 18th dynasty; rings have up 
to 75 % of copper. 14 Cobalt was used in glass colouring from the 
18th dynasty; as in Egypt it occurs only as traces in other 
minerals, the glass-makers must have been in contact with the 
industries abroad, in Persia and the Caucasus. The early use of 
cobalt is of interest in general, since the ore is not blue and does 
not suggest its colour-possibilities. 15 The Egyptians early learned 












216 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

how to glaze; a piece of glazed steatite comes from the Badaean 
epoch, glazed powdered quartz faience and then glazed solid 
quartz from predynastic times, then glazed pottery on till the 
Arab period. 16 In faience a vitreous alkaline paste is used; the 
colours were mostly blue, green, or greenish-blue, but at times 
we meet violet, white, yellow, or two or more colours; an extra 
layer was also used to enhance or modify the effects. The period 
when lead glazes came in is uncertain and much debated. 17 

The magical effects of colours were often deduced on the 
principle of sympathies. Galactitite (evidently white) was thought 
to promote the flow of milk in women; amethyst seems to have 
been considered a defence against drunkenness on account of 
its wine-like hues. 18 An old Sumerian hymn compares the change 
from light to darkness with that of gypsum into bitumen; and 
words like “night” and “day”, salmu and pisii , are often used for 
black and white. 19 By neo-Babylonian or Chaldean times the 
correlation of stars or gods with metal has developed. Silver 
becomes the metal of Marduk, gold that of En.Me.Shar.Ra, 
copper that of Ea; a tablet allots silver, gold, copper, tin, to Anu, 
Enlil, Ea, Nin-a-mal; other tablets connect gods, metals, plants, 
stars. 20 

In Egypt, Ptah of Memphis was “master of gold-smelters and 
goldsmith”, his temple was the Goldsmithy, his priests had titles 
like Great Wielder of the Hammer, or He who Knows the Secret 
of the Goldsmiths. The tradition of Memphis as a gold-centre 
was remembered by the alchemists; Zosimos said, “I have 





ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS Z 1 J 

examined in detail a furnace in the ancient temple of Memphis.” 
Ptah was a creator-god, and his cosmic role had been formulated 
already by his priests in the Old Kingdom. 21 Echoes of their 
thought can be found in texts of all periods; but what seems the 
original statement was copied under Shabako (about 700 b.c.). 
It accepts the gods of Heliopolis and Hermopolis but subordinates 
them to Ptah, of whom they are seen as forms. First comes Ptah 
who is upon the great (primeval) place; then Ptah as the Waters; 
then Ptah-Naunet, the female counterpart of the spirit of the 
abyss; then Ptah “the very great [ancient] one who is the heart 
and tongue of the divine company.” As creator, he represents the 
seat of intelligence (heart) and the organ of spech that translates 
thought into command (action). In all he takes eight forms, of 
which the last is the lotus. “The supreme god is Ptah, who has 
endowed all the gods and their Ka’s through that heart [of his] 
which appeared in the form of Horos and that tongue [of his] 
which appeared in the form of Thoth, both of which were forms 
of Ptah.” 22 We thus see him in a hierarchical series of manifesta¬ 
tions or transformations while remaining a single person. If the 
priests or craftsmen applied this conception of him to the metal¬ 
lurgical processes over which he presided (and in which in a 
sense he would be incarnated), they were approaching a proto- 
alchemic position. 

There is much more we might profitably consider in early metal¬ 
lurgy, but the above points are sufficient for our purposes. If we 
turn to the alchemists we find that they seem to have used four 
main methods in goldmaking: they produced yellow alloys of 
base metals like brass; they prepared debased gold; they super¬ 
ficially coloured metals or alloys; they tried a set of complicated 
processes in which distilled liquids were used or in which metals 
were subjected to the action of vapours. The last method was the 
important one. 

The brass-like alloys (including some of the alloys of copper, tin, 
zinc), which have been made in modern times under names like 
ormolu or mannheim-gold, were known to the alchemists. They 
prepared them by smelting mixtures of copper, tin, etc., with 
kadmia (a mixture of metallic oxides with a variable proportion 
of zinc, found in the flues of the furnaces). This impure and un¬ 
certain material cannot have yielded regular results, which may 
be the reason for the differing recipes for its use. As for the brass 


25. Bartering a necklet for perfume 













219 


218 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

alloys, the alchemists seem to have prepared a number of them 
with copper as the main ingredient, plus tin, lead, zinc, iron, silver, 
mercury, or some of these. Doublings of gold, so-called, probably 
often involved copper and silver. Silver gives gold a greenish, 
copper a reddish tinge; the admixture of both copper and silver 
hardly altered the hue. The alchemist would interpret the effect 
as showing that gold as a seed acted on the silver and copper, 
growing at their expense, till the whole amount became gold. 

Superficial colouring was probably understood for what it was, 
at least to some extent; it is called tinging, not making, of gold. 
Then as now three main methods were used. The metal was 
coated with a tinted lacquer of gums; solutions were laid on to 
form a thin layer of sulphides; the base metal in debased gold was 
removed from the surface by corrosive substances so that a layer 
of fairly pure gold was left showing. (The corrosive would be 
something like sulphur trioxide got by calcining sulphates of iron 
and copper.) But the typical alchemic process involved volatile 
substances, spirits, and was done by means of distillations and 
sublimations. All pictures of apparatus or workshops show 
instruments for dealing with volatile substances. Only such ap¬ 
paratus could be imagined as extracting the spirit from a body or 
re-infusing it. 23 

We may now pause to glance at the random indications we get in 
the papyri of the trades which played their part in bringing al¬ 
chemy about. First, the metallurgical. The mining of metals and 
semi-precious or precious stones remained a government mono¬ 
poly in Egypt under the Romans. 24 The government also con¬ 
trolled the quarrying of granite, porphyry, marble and the like. 
Working conditions seem to have been miserable; and more than 
elsewhere in the empire compulsion was used to get labour. 25 



ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 

Criminals were also sent to the mines. We know little, however, 
of the minerals mined. Copper, gold, iron, lead, and manganese 
ores are still found in the eastern desert and in the Sinai peninsula, 
but how far they were worked by the Romans is uncertain. Some 
gold still came down the Nile from Aithiopia. Antimony, cobalt, 
and tin were imported. Philostratos gives us a picture of the 
barter-system on the borders of Egypt and Aithiopia: “When he 
[Apollonios] arrived at the frontier—at a place named Sykaminos 

he came across a quantity of uncoined gold, an elephant, and 
various roots, myrrh, and spices, all lying there without anyone 
to guard them at the crossroads.” Apollonios contrasted the 
honest ways of the folk there with the commercial greeds of the 
Greeks: 

Contrast our good Hellenes. They pretend they can’t live unless one 
penny begets another, and unless they can drive up the price of their 
wares by chaffering or by creating a scarcity. One pretends he’s got a 
daughter due for marriage, another that his son is just reaching man¬ 
hood, a third has to pay his subscription to his club, a fourth is having 
a house built, a fifth would be ashamed to be thought a worse man of 
business than his father before him. What a splendid thing if wealth were 
less honoured and equality flourished a bit more, and “if the black iron 
were left to rust in the ground.” Then all men would be in accord and 
the whole earth like one brotherhood. 26 

We gain a few glimpses of the premises of goldsmiths in con¬ 
tracts. Thus, in 18 b.c. at Alexandreia Apollonios, son of Sarapion, 
made a contract to cede his goldsmith’s shop to Euangelos, son 
of Archoneus, on “receiving the balance of 300 silver drachmai 
on or before 9 Phamenoth”. The premises include “the shop, the 
tallies built for the trade and . . . belonging to him in the inner 
circle of the square portico on the street(?) leading westward. 
The neighbours on the south being Eirenaios, on the north 
Apollophanes, on the east Sosibios, and facing the street on the 
west.” There were several strict terms: 

The costs of the cession are borne by Euangelos himself. In addition it 
is agreed that Apollonios shall give undisturbed possession, inviolate 
and free from rental charges up to the present month Mecheir of 
Caesar’s 12th Year. And Apollonios shall at his expense withstand 
anyone, who may proceed against him or lay claim to the property for 
private debts, nor shall he himself take possession nor use the law and 
custom about any such transactions. But if he violates any of these 
provisions, apart from the agreement being valid, he shall pay what he 


26. Egyptian unguent-maker’s workshop 






















220 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

has received on the principal with a penalty of 50% immediately and 
besides 500 dr. in silver as a private debt, and damages and costs as 
well as the prescribed penalty. 

Euangelos shall have the right of exaction from Apollonios himself 
and from all his property as if legal judgment had been pronounced. 
And if Apollonios makes any evasion in the matter of cession, it shall 
be possible for Euangelos, on depositing the balance of 300 silver dr. 
at an authorised bank in the name of Apollonios, the risk of the bank 
falling on Apollonios, and on transferring a copy of this agreement to 
the Record Office of the Porch, to effect a cession from the name of 
Apollonios and those associated with him to his own name or to whom¬ 
soever he chooses without personal recognition and without requiring 
the presence of Apollonios himself, the cost of the transfer falling upon 
the latter. 

But if in his turn Apollonios is ready to make the cession in accordance 
with the agreement and Euangelos does not pay the balance of 300 
silver dr. in the prescribed time, he shall pay them with a penalty of 50% 
increase and for over time he shall pay interest at the rate of 2 dr. per 
mna a month. We request that this agreement be recorded. Registered 
in Caesar’s 12th Year, 8 Mecheir. 27 

A similar cession dated 128 from the village of Euhemereia is much 
shorter: 

From . . ., registered in the ward of Horion Hierax, and from Gaius 
Longinus Priscus, honourably discharged from the Army as he claims , 
we wish you to cede to us for a further term of 4 years from the month 
Sebastos of the present 13 th Year of Our Lord Hadrianus Caesar the 
Goldsmith’s Industry at the Village of Euhemereia at a yearly inclusive 
rental of 264 dr. in silver, which we shall pay in equal instalments on the 
10th, 20th, and 30th of each month, all other charges to the treasury 
being borne by . . . 28 

We are given a rough view of the accumulation of trades in a 
town of the early Byzantine period in a document probably 
dealing with Panopolis, which Strabon had called “an old settle¬ 
ment of linen-workers and stone-workers”. In this, the town of 
Zosimos, the poet Nonnos, and several other interesting writers, 
we meet weaver, oilmaker, fuller, potter, miller, scent-maker, 
carpenter, perhaps machine-constructor (for irrigation-works), 
linen-weaver, weaver of rush-ropes or mats, smith of bronze 
(< chalkotjpos ), and four goldsmiths as well as a workshop, ergasterion, 
without qualification. There seems a tendency for the workers of 
the same trade to gather in the same district. There were also 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 221 

sellers of bread and wine, bath-attendant, sailor, shepherd, school¬ 
master, lawyer, doctor, banker, not to mention trumpet-player, 
priests and magistrates. Interestingly there was a temple dedicated 
to Agathodaimon, though whether he was merely a town-guardian 
or had any special link with smiths we do not know. 29 

Occasionally goldsmiths come up in letters or legal documents, 
in a.d. 178 six persons, superintendents of the golden statue of 
Athene-Theoris, were involved in a case of peculation. They 
appealed to a prefect who had recently decided the case. A statue 
of the goddess had been made and someone embezzled a quantity 
of gold in the process. A previous prefect had given the verdict 
that the loss, 18 talents of silver, should be met by the craftsmen 
and the municipal officers of the year. The new prefect substan¬ 
tially upheld this verdict, distributing the responsibility between 
the contractor, the inspector, the officials who paid out the money, 
and the overseers, who now apply for relief. They do not deny 
responsibility, but ask that two gymnasiarchs and a third official 
whom (they allege) had been concerned in the disbursements, 
should be ordered to aid them; they also ask for an extension of 
time, offering a yearly payment of two talents and claiming that 
the existing order would bring them to ruin. The craftsmen are 
described as techneitai chrysochooi . 30 

In a petition dated 5 September 296 two women, Thaesion and 
Kyrillous, daughters of Kopres of the village of Karanis, were 
acting through their maternal uncle Ammonios. Their father had 
died (probably in 283-4) and they assert that before his death 
their stepmother admitted that her husband owed her nothing, 
yet later persuaded her father to remove seven sheep from the 
(lock he left. As reason for the act, she insisted that her dead 
husband had owed her a mna in gold; but she failed to prove her 
case. So she brought up a contract supposed to have been made by 
Kopres which assigned her a half-interest in a slave-girl as 
security for her dowry. The daughters in reply stated that by law 
all dowries recorded in writing must be evalued by a goldsmith 
(for jewellery and metal objects) and a tailor (for clothes), and they 
denied that the contract of dowry or that of security upheld the 
stepmother’s demands. 31 

We get some idea of what a goldsmith’s workshop was like 
from one of the panels of the Black Room in the House of the 
Vettii at Pompeii. A big furnace stands on the right; behind it a 
workman (represented by a Cupid) is busy chiselling a metal 













222 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 



bowl, probably one of bronze, which is being prepared for silver- 
inlays such a bowl was found in the shop of a trader in bronze- 
work, negotiator aerarius. A second Cupid-worker keeps the furnace 
blazing with a blowpipe and heats a piece of metal held in tongs. 
A third hammers a small bit of metal on an anvil. Near him is a 
counter with three open drawers and two pairs of scales, one large, 
one smaller. A lady-customer discusses with the goldsmith the 
weight of a jewel and beyond them two more workers hammer 
a big piece of metal on an anvil. 

Goldsmiths were used by hard-up persons for the sale ofvaluable 
objects. A letter, probably of the 2nd century a.d., shows a man 
in trouble, writing to some one (perhaps his wife) about the dis¬ 
position of articles: 

I paid you 32 dr. by weight for the .. . of the embroiderer. I wrote to 
you by letter telling you to get 80 dr. from Krissa who’s staying with 
. . . on the mirror s account. I wrote that Epiktetos has my big silver 
ring, making a . . . weighing a stater of Ptolemaic silver, so that my 
might sell it. I sent you a message that Kornelis [Kornelios] the Gold¬ 
smith has my silver ring-key [or finger-key] off (? of a dr.) weight, to 
be sold. You have 2 bronze strainers, one new, one in medium con¬ 
dition, and a new cup [or pint-measure] and you have my white cloak 
and the white cloak of woollen felt and the self-coloured [undyed] 
trimmings and those made of Xoitic wool and the near-white ones, 
apart from the ..., but the big walking stick which is under the ... I 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 223 

didn’t write all this in the tablet, as I was going out, being unable 
to . . . 32 

A 2nd-century letter expresses delight at the recovery of a friend 
from illness. A goldsmith named Serenos has arrived and brought 
(lie news that “he is now free from fever. This is the good news we 
wished for.” 33 A 5 th-century letter shows a goldsmith occupied 
with various matters that have no connection with his craft: 

To my truly beloved brother Aphyngios, from Ptolemaios of Takona. 
Since your Charity has pleased God, it’s our Duty to laud your 
I lonoured State, brother. Deign, if it be your Pleasure, to meet. . . the 
camel-driver until you speedily receive the articles sent to me by 
Isak: 2 pairs of loaves, 1 vessel of radish-oil holding 2 sextarii, 1 
double jar of good vinegar, and 1 flagon of wine, 1 . . ., 1 . . . , 3 
cheeses and | a.. ., and x pair of [?] bellows, and . . . whatever the 
camel-driver gets from the said man, give me a complete account, 
what this is, so that the camel-driver may take it. I greet my Honoured 
Mother Kyra and all my friends. I could not. . . dispatch him, but 
with God’s help I shall soon send you a present [?]. I pray for your 
health. 

To my truly Beloved Brother Aphyngios Goldsmith from Ptolemaios 
of Takona. 34 

Naturally goldsmiths figure in many accounts. From the Ptolemaic 
period we may take an expense-account, perhaps made up on a 
journey, in which is recorded, as well as four copper drachmai 
ollered to the sacred ibis, something “from Horos gold [smith] 
l hrough Agathon”. In a papyrus that seems to give a statement of 
banker’s daily business goldsmiths appear, Semthis and Opos 
(several times) as well as “the goldsmiths of the town”. An account 
(>f 21-20 b.c. of expenditure in copper has “to the priest of Thoeris, 
to Kephalas goldsmith”, and so on. Payments in the early 4th 
century include as recipients a high priest, linen-dealer, women 
bakers, a goldsmith, stoker, dyer and bankers. 36 

A goldsmith who played a minor part in history was Aetios 
of Antioch in Koile Syria, who founded the Anomoian form of 
Arianism. Left fatherless and penniless as a child, he became the 
slave of a vine-dresser’s wife, then a wandering tinker or gold¬ 
smith. A scandal, or impulse of ambition led him to turn to 
medicine under a quack (some herbalist or the like?); and he set 
himself up at Antioch. The schools of medicine, having a materi¬ 
alist outlook, favoured the Arian heresy with its more rational 
theology—the Son seen as not mystically identical in substance 















224 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

with the Father and Aetios took up the Arian position with 
extreme fervour. He frequented the meetings of the physicians 
where theory was fiercely argued out, and became such a keen and 
expert debater that he was paid by less eloquent thinkers to set 
out their principles. After his mother’s death he studied under an 
Arian bishop, but was driven out of Antioch to Anazarbos, where, 
about a.d. 331, he resumed his work as a goldsmith. A professor 
of grammar employed him as a servant, but dismissed him for 
publicly arguing for views that he, the professor, opposed. Again 
an Arian bishop took him up and he returned to Antioch, but 
was again driven out. This time (before a.d. 348) he went to 
Kilikia, where he debated with the Boborian Gnostics. Via 
Antioch he travelled now to Alexandreia, where he debated with 
the Manichee Aphthonios. Once again he took up medicine, 
giving his services free to the sick and earning his livelihood by 
goldsmith-work at night. His opponents, however, declared that 
his main occupation at the time was an irreverent application of 
logical figures and geometrical diagrams to the nature of God’s 
Word. On a former master of his becoming bishop at Antioch, 
he went back there, but his enemies forced him out of his ordina¬ 
tion as deacon (in which he was accepted only for teaching work). 

The remainder of his career was on the same stormy and restless 
pattern. With the rise of Arianism he defended the sharpest and 
most explicit form of the heresy, at one time becoming bishop at 
Constantinople. During a period of exile at Amblada, in Pisidia, 



ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 225 

lie composed what the orthodox described as 300 Blasphemies; 
and we know that he called his opponents Chronites (Temporals) 
with an apparent allusion to their courtly obsequiousness. Unfor¬ 
tunately we do not own any complete work of his and are 
dependent on the abuse of the orthodox for the account of his 
life and ideas. They attacked his morals; but his wickedness seems 
to have consisted in following various Gnostics in denying the 
need of fasting and self-mortification. While we cannot prove that 
his heretical positions were linked with his training as goldsmith 
and physician, the connection is likely and suggestive. 36 

Bronzesmiths were scattered often in small localities. A docu¬ 
ment of the late 3rd or early 4th century, drawn up by some official 
apparently with a view to exacting contributions from each of 
them, mentions Pasion bronzesmith, and then “in the village Teis 
workshop of Ammonios with his sons and bronzesmith Euan- 
gelos”. In the Byzantine period we find them on the big estates. 

I .ate 6th-century documents, probably of the Apion family, name 
loannes and Petros as chalkeis, and 

To Phib, smith, when working on the 6 irregatos outside the gate, 
on account of pay, 10 art. of com by kank. measure, of which 5 art. 
were given through the cultivators outside the gate, remainder through 
us 5 art. by kank. measure, 5 art. by kank. measure. 

Then we have a piece of yellow sandstone inscribed in Greek, 
which must have been let into the wall of a foundry; the date is 
perhaps 1 October 641. “With the Flelp of the One God to Appa 
losephios Bishop who Built this Bronze Foundry for the Holy 
Church in the Name of J. C. Amen in the Month Phaophi of 
the 4th Year of the Indiction.” The term used for foundry 
chalkeutikon ergasterion, is not found elsewhere. At this time the 
Church had gained a very strong economic position, acquiring 
or building workshops of many kinds. 37 

In 316 we find a guild of ironsmiths at Oxythynchos gave a 
receipt to the authorities through their monthly president, 
Aurelios Severos son of Sarmates: 

1 have received from Aurelios Agathoboulos son of Alexandros, banker 
in charge of the Public Receipts in the Official Bank of Oxyrhynchos 
in accordance with the Order of the said Most Estimable Logistes, 
the appointed sum which was to be ordered to be paid to us as the price 
of one hundred-weight of usable iron intended for public works of the 
City, namely 6 talants in full. 38 



















226 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

We may note that though the term chalkeus above is translated 
bronzesmith, in fact it was used for almost any kind of smith. 
The ironsmiths are called siderochalkeis, literally “ironbronze- 
smiths”. Already, in the Odyssej, chalkeus is used of a goldsmith 
and/or an ironsmith. A lead-worker, Aurelios Pamouthios, in 
579 stood as surety to the heirs of Flavios Apion that Aurelios 
Abraham, son of Herminos and Herais, who came from the estate 
Great Tarouthinos (also belonging to the heirs), would remain 
where he was, “together with his dear ones and wife and herds and 
all his possession”. If Abraham defaulted and went off, Pamouthios, 
son of Georgios and Anniana, “coming from the City of Oxy- 
rhynchos”, would have to pay 8 gold solidi. 39 

Gems and semi-precious stones found in Egypt, included agate, 
amethyst, beryl, calcite, chalcedony, carnelian, garnet, haematite, 
jasper red and brown, peridot (from an island in the Red Sea), 
quartz, turquoise, sard, sardonyx, onyx, green felspar (amazonite, 
probably the stone called emerald, the gem itself being imported 
from India). The Stockholm Papyrus cites as materials used in 
making artificial gems and dyes: Cyprian and Galatian copper, 
Kappadokian salt, asphalt, Spanish tin, mercury, Kimolian 
earth, Makedonian chrjsokolla, Knidian and Syrian kokkos, 
Pontic honey, Indian crystal, Armenian blue, asbestos, resin 
from Palestine or Tomoi, Pontic henna, indigo, Skythian bark, 
Phrygian stone, Sinopic earth, orpiment, litharge. 10 

In The Paradise of the Holj Fathers, which we have in a Syriac 
version, we hear how the Abba Makarios practised a holy fraud 
on a rich, unmarried woman of Alexandreia: 

From his youth up he had been a skilful workman in the cutting of 
gems and he went to her and said, “Certain very precious emeralds 
and gems have fallen into my hands, and whether they have been 



29. Heaps and cones of incense 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 227 

stolen or not I do not know; their value cannot be ascertained, because 
they are above price, but the man who has them will sell them for five 
hundred dinars. 41 

The woman gave him the money, which he gave to the poor. 
Later she asked what he had done, and he took her to his house, 
where she saw the decrepit folk he kept. 

Plinius remarks that to tell genuine from false gems was 
extremely difficult: 

especially as we have discovered how to transfer genuine stones of one 
variety into false stones of another. For example, a sardonyx can be 
glued-up so convincingly by sticking three gems together that the 
artifice cannot be detected. A black stone is taken from one species, a 
white from another, and a vermilion-coloured stone from a third, all 
being excellent in their way. And further, there are treatises by 
authorities, which I at least shall not deign to mention by name, 
describing how by means of dyestuffs, emeralds and other transparent 
coloured gems are made from rock-crystal, or a sardonyx from a sard, 
and similarly all the other gemstones from one stone or another. And 
there is no other trickery that is practised against people more 
profitably. 

This reference to books on tinctures suggests that alchemic or 
near-alchemic works were partly misunderstood. Plinius goes on 
to give some rules for testing gems. First, do it early, not later 
than 10 a.m., and then look for weight, coolness, and structure. 

In artificial stones globules deep below the surface, rough particles on 
the surface itself, filaments, inconsistent lustre, and brightness that 
fails to strike the eye. The most effective test is to knock off a piece of 
the stone so that it can be baked on an iron plate; but dealers in precious 
stones do not unnaturally object to this, as likewise to testing with a 
file. 42 

Clement records an odd belief that had grown up about the cult- 
statue of Sarapis at Alexandreia, which had, in fact, been made 
under Ptolemaios I. The historian Athenodoros, he declares, 
wrote that: 

Sesostris, the [legendary] Egyptian king, after subduing most of the 
nations of Greece, brought back to Egypt a number of skilled crafts¬ 
men. He therefore gave personal orders that a statue of Osiris his 
ancestor should be elaborately wrought at great cost; and the statue 
was made by the artist Bryaxis, not the famous Athinian but another of 

















228 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

the same name, who used a mixed and varied [poikilos\ set of material 
in its construction. He had filings of gold, silver, bronze, iron, lead, 
and even tin; and not a single Egyptian stone was left out, there being 
bits of sapphire, haemetite, emerald, and topaz as well. After reducing 
them all to powder and mixing them, he stained the mixture dark blue, 
so that tne statue s colour is nearly black and mingled the whole with 
the pigment left over from the funeral rites of Osiris and Apis. Thus he 
moulded Sarapis: whose very name implies this link with funeral rites 
and the construction out of burial material, Osirapis being a compound 
from Osiris and Apis. 43 

Here we meet the dyeing of metals and stones, the connection of 
this process with death-rebirth ritual, the notion that a cosmic 
god ought to be made up out of all the main metals (planetary 
systems), and the further notion that this god in his underworld 
or death-aspect should be black (like the primary matter of the 
alchemist). 

The Empire exported both gems and false precious-stones to 
the east. At Virapatnam, the Roman-Indian emporium near 
Pondicherry, large numbers have been found, some made of 
glass, dating from the first half of the ist century a.d. Accounts 
of Chinese embassies about 97, 220-64, and 420-78 refer to 
imitation-gems from Syria. 44 Records dealing with western 
contacts mention the Nightshining Stone, a Syrian product, and 
western sources tell of precious stones luminous in the dark: 
perhaps chlorophane, which, despite synonyms like pyrosmaragd, 
is not an emerald or beryl but a fluorspar, of which many varieties 
have strong phosphorescence and fluorescence on being heated 
or scratched in a dim light. 48 There may be a link with the Indian 
cobra-stone or napct-kallu^ said to be used by cobras to attract 
fireflies and to lie behind the sacred jewel famous in Japan as 
hoshi-no-tama. The wealth of gold and jewels described in ancient 
and early medieval writings about the East Roman palaces and 
temples were, in fact, gilt copper and coloured glass. 46 

Fire-effects were used by the western jugglers taken home to 
China by the embassy of 120 to Shan (on the Burmese border). 
The jugglers performed before the emperor An on New Year’s 
Day 121, they could conj ure, spit fire, bind and release their 
limbs without aid, interchange the heads of cows and horses, and 
dance cleverly with up to a thousand balls”. Jugglers had already 
been mentioned in the Parthian missions of Chang Chhien’s 
time, about 120 b.c. 47 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 229 

As for colouring materials, deposits of gypsum between 
Ismailia and the Red Sea, and along the Red Sea coast, were used 
mainly for making plaster; the Romans also taught the Egyptians 
how to use lime for this purpose; and both gypsum and lime were 
used for whiting. Near Syene and in the western oases red and 
yellow ochres were found; the yellow, calcined, becomes red, 
and no doubt both kinds were used in red paint. Ochre and san- 
daraca also came from Topazos, a Red Sea island; and the blue 
pigment called caeruleum that came from Egypt may have been 
azurite, found in the eastern deserts and Sinai, or an artificial 
fruit. Dyeing had been practised from predynastic days. The five 


30. Cones of incense; lady and servant with cones 

main dyes cited in the Leyden Papyrus X and the Stockholm 
Papyrus are archil (orchil), a purple got from certain sea-algae 
on rocks in the Mediterranean; alkanet, a red from the roots of 
the Alkanna tinctoria; madder, a red from the roots of the Rubia 
tinctorum and Rubia peregrina; kermes, a red from the dried 
body of a female insect found on an evergreen oak; and woad, 
got by fermenting the leaves of the Isatis-tinctoria. Woad was 
certainly grown in the Fayum from the Christian era, and pro¬ 
bably earlier. In several documents of the 2nd century a.d. we 
find it prohibited as a crop, though no reason is given. 48 As a 
mordant or fixing agent, alum seems chiefly used. Plinius describes 
the method without naming the mordant: 



















230 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not 
with colours, but with mordants calculated to absorb colour. This done 
the tissues, still apparently unchanged, are plunged into a cauldron of 
boiling dye and are taken out the next moment fully coloured. It is a 
singular fact too that though the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour 
the material when taken out is of various colours, according to the 
nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied. These 
colours too will never wash out. 49 


He mentions also a secret method known to the Egyptians for 
bringing out the design on stuffs. 

The industry of dyeing and fulling was closely connected with 
weaving. The bids or reports of fullers and dyers lack details, 
but some sort of government control is implied. The accounts of 
the temple at Soknopaiou Nesos show payment made for taxes 
on a fulling works at Neilopolis; and the guild of dyers evidently 
requested a cession of the lease of the temple. 50 Probably the 
temple held the lease from the State and sublet to others. In the 
160s: 


The Fullers Dyers from the Arsinoite Nome were summoned and 
appeared. Longeinos, advocate, stated: 

Of these men, some are fullers and others dyers by trade, and for 
the tax on trades the fullers pay 1092 dr. yearly and the dyers 1088 
according to tariff and custom. A certain Maximos, appointed inspector 
wrongly entered against them a larger sum than was due. So they 
appealed to the Prefect, who referred them to his Highness the 
Epistrategos Crassus. The latter summoned the Eklogistes of the Nome 
and ordered him to verify the accounts of the last twenty years, and. 



31 ■ Relief of Roman goldworker, aurifer 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 23I 

on his reporting that no more had been paid than was sanctioned by 
the tariff, decided that they should pay on this scale, and they have done 
so up to the present time. A superintendent of the tax on trades has 
now been appointed, who wants to demand from them a larger amount 
than that in the tariff, and they therefore petitioned the strategos, adding 
a statement. . . , but as nothing was done by the strategos, they were 
obliged to appeal to you.” 

Protarchos, advocate, said: . . in accordance with the decision of 
Crassus ... a report on the subject was laid before his Highness 
Liberalis, who made an endorsement that they should be obliged to 
pay.” 

Severianos said, “When the Eklogistes is present.. .” 51 

In 172 an offer was made by Heron to the ten superintendents 
of the leasing of the dyeing monopoly at Arsinoe for a rental of 
300 drachmai. Heron, who lived in the quarter of the Temple of 
Sekneptynis, was to make himself responsible for other charges 
falling in on the lessee if he gained the right of superintending 
the weaving-business in Archelais village. 52 To the 2nd-3rd 
centuries belongs an order “to the head-policeman of Tarouthinou 
Epoikion: send Andromachos and Paous, weavers ... at the 
petition of the collectors of the dyeing trade”. 53 

In some abstracts of contracts of the late 2nd century we meet 
sales connected with a dyeing-shop: 

. .. and the drains in vacant spaces to the west of the workshop, the 
use of \ the above-cited being reserved for Epeus son of Sarapion, 
freedman of Demetrous daughter of Ploutarchos, of the said city 
[Oxyrhynchos], for his lifetime in accordance with the aforesaid will, 
and ... at the workshop and drains. The adjacent areas are on the 
south land of the heirs of Damas, on the north land of Philoneikos, on 
the east a street, on the west a garden. 

Sarapias and Aunchis, both daughters of Harthonis son of Paapis, 
and their mother Terathonis, daughter of Zoilos son of Sarapion son of 
Petoousarapis, have sold the produce and roofs and dyeing-workshops 
jointly constructed, which belongs to them in the aforesaid dyeing- 
place, and the leaden pot and earthenware cask which they possess 
there, and further the vacant spaces they possess to the west of work¬ 
shop. 54 

In a document of 381, Aurelios Ploutarchos of the village of 
Phoboou in the 5 th Pagus or District of the Oxyrhynchite Nome 
made himself the guarantor of a loan made by a dyer Aurelios. . . 
son of Heraklas of the city to a friend of his, Philonikos, son of 















232 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Besammon. The loan was 4,200 myriads of denars of silver “on 
account of extra payments in accordance with the contracts if . . . 
made by me [Ploutarchos] in order that you [the dyer] may have 
security from me until the repayment of the sum”. 56 

In a 6th century document a purple-dyer from Alexandreia 
hires out his services to two businessmen. Andreas and Petros, 
for a period of two years, during which he is to work at their 
premises. In return he is to get 11 solidi less 5 carats, with 92 
carats as advance payment. His name is Aurelios Menas, son of the 
blessed Abramios. 56 In a document of 399, also from Hermopolis, 
we meet in a fragmentary petition to the nyktostrategos the name 
Aurelios Annan loses. Apparently the Jewish name “Annan” 
has been left unhellenised. 57 And about 570 the lessee of a shop, 
in the southern agora of Antinopolis below the dwelling-house 
of the lessor, was a Jew Peret who meant to turn the site into a 
dyeing-works at a monthly rent. The lease was determinable 
(as often at this time) at the lessor’s will. Peret, son of Iouab and 
Rhosyne, paid 11 carats of gold at the end of each month. 
Previously the place had been a general store. 58 

In the Gnostic Gospels of Philip much use is made of imagery 
from the crafts. God is compared at length with a good dyer who 
blends his colours. The breath of the glass-blower blowing a vase 
is the simile for the pneuma. The destiny of men is linked with that 
of the ass turning a mill, walking miles and miles, but finding 
himself at the end, for all Ids pains, wretchedly where he started. 59 

We may complete this chapter with a glance at drugs, cosmetics 
and fermenting processes. The papyri have many lists of drugs 
and medicines, which need not, however, detain us. A document 
of 18 May 253, concerned with the registration of druggist’s 
stock, shows how carefully such matters were controlled. Aurelios 
Neoptolemos, son of Dioskoros of Oxyrhynchos, was writing to 
three men, lessees of the monopoly of the alum industry: 

In accordance with the orders of Aelius Sabeinos the most excellent 
procurator of Hermes, I make a punctual return of the items which I 
have received from the previous lesees of the industry as listed below: 

Alum from Psobthis, talants weight; and split alum, 30 mnai 
weight Melanteria , 12 tal. Miltos. 7 tal. Misy, 450 loaves [or pellets] ... 5 
tal. Ochre from the Oasis, 3 tal. Salt, 5 tal..., 5 tal... 2 measures. I 
have remitted the price of all these, in full, as is customary in accordance 
with the receipts I hold. 60 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 233 

The five items that survive in the text all have a medical use; 
four are also pigments, and the fifth is a mordant (alum). Deposits 
of alum and ochre were found in all the oases, but here we are 
referred to Psobthis, capital of the Little Oasis, from which alum 
was brought on camel-back to the Fayum. The alum monopoly 
there is well-attested. Camel-drivers paid a toll at the gate of town 
or village. In 145: 

Through the Bank of Sabeionos in the Treasuries Quarter. Ischyrion, 
son of Aphrodisios, and his fellow supervisors of the alum monopoly 
in the Arsinoite Nome, to Panouphis, son of Tesenouphis and of 
Stotoetis, of the village of Soknopaiou Nesos in the Division of 
Ilerakleides, Camel-Driver, stating that he has received, for the toll 
[paid to him] on the 30 light talants of alum which he transported from 
the Litde Oasis to the Arsinoite Nome through the toll-gate of Nynpou, 
at the rate of 1 dr. 3 ob. per talant, 45 dr. 

And as the said quantity equals 12 metal talants, he has received for 
their transport, at the rate of 7 dr. 3 ob., 90 dr., making in all 135 dr. 
Ischyrion has received from the supervisors in the Little Oasis through 
the above-named camel-driver the 12 metal talants of alum . . . the 
customary 6J%. 61 

The 6|% payment is obscure; in some cases the government 
deducted that amount for payments in advance, but that hardly 
seems the case here. The journey in question took 8 to 9 days by 
camel. From a document of 229 in which a superintendent (of 
the Prefect’s Boats) writes to three ex-magistrates of Oxyrhynchos, 
who superintend the alum monopoly, we learn how many state¬ 
ments had to be made out. “The 6 five-day accounts of the alum 
monopoly, from the 1 st to 5 th of the month Thoth of the present 
year, which you have sent, 2 for the dept, of the Dioiketes, 1 for 
the Roman [?] Archives, 1 for the Nome’s Procurator, 1 for his 
Bureau, 1 for the Oikonomos, were received by me on the 20th 
of the month and forwarded.” We also have a letter, dated 300, 
from a lessee: 

Aurelios Makrobios, Lessee of the Administration of Alum, through 
me, Kaisarios, clerk, to Aurelios Isak, greeting. I have sent you 1 
Italian lb. of alum through Isidores, and 2 ounces 8 carats of nasturtium, 
powder. 16th, 15th, and 8th Year, Tybi 28. 62 

To judge from the connection with kardamon, the alum here was 
to be for medical use. 

In early days drugs and medicines were closely connected with 












234 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

cosmetics and incense: all were life-giving substances. Hence the 
world of the gods was depicted as drenched in perfumes and cos- 
metical elements; and scents and incense were offered up to them. 
In ancient Egypt the priest who supervised embalming had a 
name connected with the knowledge of herbs, wt. The Akkadian 
word for ointment is closely connected with the name of the 
priest who made up the incense offerings, with the word for 
anointing-oil and the vase holding it or the spatula distributing 
it. The word for aromatic herbs denotes also resins and gums, all 
substances oo2ing or filtering from the plants, and is related to 
words denoting samples, medical herbs, unguents or pastes. The 
Egyptian word for the gums, kmjt, became in Greek kommi, and 
ultimately our own gum . 63 Though the Egyptians had a word for 
smell, they always called perfumes “the fragrance of the gods”. 64 

The smell of incense accompanied a god and made his presence 
known. This connection of the smell and the god’s advent is 
brought out, for instance, in the legend of Queen Hatshepsut’s 
begetting, birth, and education. So, in turn, perfumes helped to 
lure gods or luminous spirits (those of the just dead) or to repel 
evil spirits (those of the unjust dead). The dead (the spirits of the 
unjust) fled before the gods; they therefore also fled from incense. 
A captured town was fumigated to drive out the previous gods 
and bring in the Egyptian ones; and the maladies caused by evil 
spirits were cured by fumigation. 63 Thus in a lantern-rite the 
Ptolemaic magician evoked the gods: 

You will say the formula 7 times on the boy [medium]. So that he won’t 
see the lantern, he has his eyes closed. Then you’ll throw pure incense 
into, the stove and put a finger on the boy’s head with closed eyes. When 
you’ve done that, order him to open his eyes before the lantern and 
he’ll see a god-shadow by the lantern. 66 

Bad smells repelled. Maladies caused by the gods might be cured 
by fumigating the sick man with unpleasant things. “Pound 
together honey, fresh olives, northern salt, piss of a menstruating 
woman, ass-shit, tomcat-shit, pig-shit, the plant ewnek ... so as 
to make a compact mass and use for fumigation round the man.” 
As places from which the gods have gone are opened up for 
daimons, the appearance of the latter can best be precluded by the 
concoction of stinks. Thus a magician evokes the spirit of a 
damned person by burning ass-shit in a cauldron. In evocations 
with the aid of a vase and a medium: 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 


235 


I low to spell a vase quickly so that the gods may come and tell you 
always the truth. Throw into the fire a crocodile’s eggshell or what 
you find there: the vase will be at once spelled. How to force them to 
speak. Throw a frog’s head into the stove and they’ll speak. How to 
bring the gods with living force: Throw into the stove crocodile bile 
powdered with incense. To force them to come at once, throw into 
the stove a small anise-bough and the above-cited eggshell and you’ll 
spell the vase at once. To fetch a living man, throw in blue vitriol and 
he’ll come. To evoke a luminous spirit, throw in a large amulet with 
some crystal, and the luminous spirit will come. If you throw in the 
heart of a hyena or hare, it’d be very good. 

To evoke a drowned man, throw in a seacrab. To evoke a dead man, 
throw in some ass-dung and the amulet of Nephthys, and he 11 come. 
To fetch a robber, throw in powdered saffron and alum. To make the 
gods come and the vase work quickly the spells, take a scarab, drown 
it in the milk of a black cow, and throw into the stove. The vase will 
be spelled at once and the light will appear. If you want anything 
whatever to go off, throw in monkey-shit and each will go to his place 
when you recite the formula of dismissal. 

Amulet recommended for binding on the body of him performing 
the magic with a vase’s help, for quick spells. Take a band of 16 linen 
. threads, 4 white, [4 green], 4 blue, 4 red. Knot it and water it with 
peewit blood. Then tie it to a scarab in its solar form, drowned enveloped 
in a purse of the finest weave, and tie it on the body of the boy who 
exercises the magic with a vase’s help. Then he quickly creates spells, 
without hesitation. 67 

The method for making perfumes was probably some primitive 
form of distillation. Thus some tribes near the Nile sources macer¬ 
ate herbs in water, cover the vessels with strips of cloth steeped 
in grease or fat, then boil till all the scents, evaporating, have 
been fixed in the fat or grease, which can be scraped off. Such 
methods must have been used in very ancient times. But certainly 
flowers were steeped in layers of fat, being replaced as soon as 
their perfumes had been absorbed. We see the resulting pomades 
as balls or cones attached to the heads of people at merrymakings, 
they also provided a normal part of the make-up of an Egyptian 
lady. In maceration the flowers were dipped into fat or oils at 
about 6j 0 C. and the mixture was strained off. Also, men learned 
to express the flowers or seeds. First they trod the materials in a 
tub, then used a simple press of linen-cloth twisted at either end 
by a stick. By the 3rd dynasty they had improved the device by 
replacing one of the sticks with a noose attached to one of two 










236 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

uprights carrying the bag-press. No advance was made till the 
classical world invented the beam-press and the screw-press. 68 

Egyptian eye-paints were ground on a palette, the name of 
which seems connected with the word “to protect”: not simply 
from disease, but in the religous-magical sense. The paints or their 
ingredients were often offered to the gods or were used on the 
divine statues; they are often mentioned with regard to the Eye of 
Horos. Till a late stage in Egyptian history it was usual to paint 
the upper eyelid black with galena, the lower green. 69 The Akka¬ 
dian term for galena gave birth to the Arabic word kohl, which, 
from meaning a specific eyepaint, came to denote a finely divided 
powder, then a subtle spirit, and finally emerged as our alcohol. 
In Egypt the cheeks and lips were coloured with red ochre, often 
with a lipstick of reed holding a small piece of ochre at each end. 
The Sumerians seem to have preferred yellow ochre, sometimes 
called golden clay or face-bloom (the face as a flower). 70 

Incense in Egypt was the Fruit of the Gods; a later term seems 
linked with the word for peace and happiness. The Ptolemaic 
period saw the greatest expansion of varieties. By the 1st century 
a.d. the more costly kinds of incense were scarce, replaced by 
resins from coniferous trees or terebinth, which may have been 
the original incense used before the Pyramid Age. 71 Alexandreia 
was the great manufacturing centre for cosmetics and perfumes, 
outdistancing towns like Antiocheia or Laodikeia, let alone old 
Greek sites like Korinth or Chaironeia with its krinos -lily ointment. 
We must not, however forget, Mendes, the home of Bolos, which 



32. Egyptian lady using powderpuff 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 237 

was an important place for scent-production. Plinius, commenting 
on changes in fashion, says that the perfume of Delos had to make 
way for that of Mendes as that of Korinth for that of ICyzikos 
and so on. Athenaios remarks of henna, “the metopion and the 
Mendesian are made best in Egypt; the metopion is produced 
with the oil got from bitter almonds.” Despite the pre-eminence 
of Alexandreia there was much local production of unguents and 
the like. A town such as Oxyrhynchos had its Street of the Oint¬ 
ment-Makers. For a while a manufacturing centre in Campania 
competed with Alexandreia. There was a guild of unguentarn at 
Pompeii, but Capua with its Seplasia Quarter was the main pro¬ 
ducer. We hear of various fakes, e.g. white drops interspersing 
the resin from pitchpine—“closely resembling frankincense, so 
that when mixed together they’re indistinguishable to the eye; 
hence the adulteration practised in the Seplasia.” This quarter 
also faked its medical wares. “Ready-made plasters and salves 
are now on the market, and deteriorated goods and the deliberate 
falsifications of the Seplasia find their way into the mortar.” 
The Capuans thus ended by ruining their name and losing trade. 72 

Magical qualities were at times attributed to cosmetics. Thus, 
at Rome, the olive-oil mixed with dust and sweat scraped by 
strigils from the dirtied body of gladiators and athletes was 
collected and sold as rhypos for the manufacture of unguents, 
which were believed to confer something of the power and 
fascination of the fighters on the ladies. 

In a passage where Philon sees the whole universe and its 
processes symbolised in scents, we are made to feel how close 
the cosmetical and the alchemic workers could be. Philon is 
dealing with Exodus xxx (34): 

And I imagine these four ingredients of which the whole perfume is 
composed are emblems of the four elements of which the whole world 
is made. He likens the statke to water, the onycha to land, the galbanon 
to air, and the pure transparent frankincense to fire. For stakte, deriving 
its name from the drops \stagones\ in which it falls, is liquid; and onycha 
is dry and earthlike; the sweetsmelling galbanon is added to give a 
representation of air, for there is fragrance in the air; and the 
transparency in frankincense serves to represent fire. 

On this account too he has separated the things with weight from 
those that are light, uniting the one class by a closely-connecting 
combination and bringing forth the other in a disunited form: as 
where he says, “Take to yourself sweet odours, stakte, onycha .” These 











238 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

things, weighty, he mentions unconnectedly, as they are symbols of 
earth and water. But afterwards he starts afresh with the other class, 
which he cites in combination: “And the sweet spice of the galbanon 
and the transparent frankincense,” as these again are in their nature 
emblems of the light things, air and fire. 

And the harmonious composition and mixture of these things is 
truly his most ancient and most perfect holy work. That is, the Universe. 
Speaking of it under the emblem of perfume, he thinks it is bound to 
show gratitude to its creator. So that in name the composition care¬ 
fully fabricated by the apothecary’s art may be offered up—but in 
reality the whole world, created by divine wisdom, may be con¬ 
secrated and dedicated, being a burnt offering of early morning and 
again of evening. For such a life as this becomes the world: continually 
and unceasingly to be giving thanks to its Father and Creator, so as 
to stop short of nothing but evaporating and reducing it into its original 
element, to show that it stores up and hides nothing, but dedicates 
itself wholly as a pious offering to the god who created it. 73 

The Talmud remarked that “the world cannot exist without a 
perfumer or a tanner.” 74 

Behind all these processes, of metallurgy as of perfumery, 
there lay the work of the kitchen. An examination of Akkadian 
and Egyptian terms shows that many which originated from some 
operation concerning food were taken over by various craftsmen 
and applied to the operations of the unguent-cooker, the miner, 
the metallurgist, the dyer. Similarly kitchen-apparatus provided 
the basis on which alchemic apparatus were developed. 75 

An alchemic text, probably of the 3rd-4th centuries, states, 
“This Water acts like leaven, producing the like by the like. As the 
leaven of bread, little as it is, ferments a great quantity of dough, 
so also a little gold can ferment the whole dry matter.” It seems 
that a leaf of gold was dissolved first in the water on this fermenta¬ 
tive principle. 76 

Zosimos is said to have given a recipe for beer. The drying in 
the sun was no doubt meant to peel off the bitter husks: 

Take well-selected fine barley, macerate it a day with water, then spread 
it for a day in a spot exposed to an air current. Then moisten the whole 
again for 5 hours and set in a handled vessel with its bottom pierced 
like a sieve. The rest must be ground up and a dough made with it 
after yeast is added, just as in breadmaking. Next the whole is put away 
in a warm place; and as soon as fermentation has set in enough, the 
mass is squeezed through a cloth of coarse wool or a fine sieve, and 
the sweet liquid is collected. But others put the parched loaves into a 


ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS 239 

waterfilled vessel and subject this to some heating, but not enough to 
I,ring the water to a boil. Then they remove the vessel from the fire, 
pour its contents into a sieve, warm the fluid again, and then put it 
aside. 77 

We see there a primitive system of malting. 

Finally we may cite a later text from Paracelsus, which finely 
brings out the way in which alchemy was bound up with all 
craft-techniques of transformation: “The baker is an alchemist 
when he bakes bread, the vinegrower when he make wine, the 
weaver when he makes cloth; therefore whatever grows in 
nature useful to man—whoever brings it to the point to which 
it: was ordered by nature is an alchemist.” 

Now we may turn back to the alchemists. With Maria we find 
ourselves on comparatively solid ground. 



33. Pompeian painting of loves as chemists 












241 


11 

Maria the Jewess 


There is one other Egyptian alchemist who must be mentioned, 
though he is a somewhat shadowy figure: Chymes or Chemes, 
cited by Zosimos as an eminent author. Olympiodoros also 
mentions him a few times. His name seems to personify the art 
and he is made to take Parmenides as authority for the axioms: 
The All is One; by it the All is engendered; One is All and if the 
All did not contain everything it could not engender it. These 
axioms were written round magic circles and serpents with the 
figures of metals or plants in the middle. Zosimos associates 
Chymes with Maria, and it is possible he is of her period and 
school. 1 There is also a reference, in a text on Goldmaking, to 
Chyth, Orpheus, and Kleopatra, but Chyth may well be a copying 
error. 2 

We have noted how famous names are brought into the motley 
lists of alchemists, as also into spells, or else titles are added to 
familiar names. Petasios becomes King of Armenia; Kleopatra, 
the Queen of Egypt; Gebir among the Arabs, King of India. 
Alexander heads some Greek MSS; the emperor Heraklios is 
inserted, and we hear of “the Precepts of the Emperor Julian”. 3 
The Christians and the Jews brought in Biblical names. Moses 
naturally plays a considerable part. One MS opens: “And the 
Lord said to Moses, I have chosen by name Bezaleel, priest of the 
Tribe of Juda, to work gold, silver, copper, iron, all objects of 
stone, of wood, and to be the master of all the arts.” The reference 
was to Exodus xxxi. This MS is perhaps the treatise elsewhere 
mentioned as The Domestic Chemistry of Moses . 4 We meet also a 
diplosis, or gold-doubling, of Moses: 

Copper of Kalais, i ounce, orpiment, native sulphur, i ounce, and 
native lead, i ounce, decomposed realgar [arsenic sulphide] i ounce. 
Boil in radish oil, with lead, 3 days. Put it in a roasting pan and set 
this on the coal till the sulphur is driven out, then take it off and you’ll 


MARIA THE JEWESS 

find your product. Of this copper take 1 part and 3 parts of gold. 
Melt it, fusing strongly, and, with God’s help, you’ll find it all changed 
to gold. 5 

The text is corrupt. The product would contain about 66 % gold, 

3 3 % of an alloy of copper, lead, and arsenic, and in colour and 
resistance to chemical action would closely resemble pure gold. 
The alchemist might well think he had got gold by means of the 
gold-yellow colour of the orpiment. He would then argue that if 
gold could convert something like its own weight of copper and 
silver into gold, why should it not do the same to large quantities 
of base metals? While silver gives gold a greenish colour, and 
copper gives it a reddish one, the admixture of both copper and 
silver hardly alter the look. The alchemists though the gold acted 
as a seed which grew at the expense of the copper and silver till 
the whole mass became gold. He might have argued that a plant- 
seed drew on the earth around it and transformed it into a plant 
vastly larger than the seed. 

In the Hermetic text XIII, Tat is given his instruction by 
Hermes “upon the Mountain”—suggesting both the Sinai of 
Moses and the mystery-mountains of Zoroastrian revelation. 
Magical and astrologic spells are attributed to Moses in the Leyden 
papyri; and in a demotic spellbook he is brought oddly into a 
charm to gain a woman’s love: 

My heart languishes, my heart loves. As a she-cat sighs after a tomcat, 
as a shewolf sighs after a wolf, as a bitch sighs after a dog, as the son 
of Sopdet sighs after Moses coming to the walls of Ninaret [Os] to 
offer up water to his god, to his supreme master, to his Yaho, Sabaho, 
to his Glemora, Moses, Plerobe, Su, Mio, Abrasaks, Senklau, so N 
daughter of N sighs after N son of N.® 

Solomon appears especially in exorcisms; his Labyrinth is drawn 
in a couple of alchemic MSS. 7 Zosimos refers to Judaic writings, 
some going back, he says, to Noah; he also mentions the transla¬ 
tion of the Bible into Greek and Egyptian, attributing the work 
to a single person—an old erroneous idea. A recipe is assigned 
to Oseas King of Israel; and other texts gave the names of Abra¬ 
ham, Isaac, Jacob, Sabaoth, and so on. 8 

The hope of understanding and controlling material process 
was seen as the struggle to bring about the regeneration of matter, 
which in turn was indissolubly linked with the struggle to rise 
above the realm of necessity (slavery) into the freedom of true 


























243 


242 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

human integration. The realm of necessity was above all regarded 
as the realm of mechanics, of mathematically determined laws, 
of the planetary systems considered to rule the lives of men in all 
details large or small. The realm of necessity was identified with 
the realm of the body, an organism controlled by a deterministic 
mechanism; the realm of freedom was variously taken as that of 
pure thought, abstract thought on Platonic lines; that of philoso¬ 
phic escape into regions felt emotionally to lie beyond the deter¬ 
ministic mechanism; and that of alchemic transformation into 
levels of qualitatively higher organisation. Only the alchemic way 
sought both to lay hold of reality and to change it. It took in 
both the aspiration to generalised and philosophic thought, and 
the passionate emotional desire to transcend the existent world 
in its totality; but it linked these aspirations and desires with the 
effort to understand and change the concrete world of process. 
Its one close affinity was thus, as we noted before, with the reli¬ 
gious mass-movements that had a powerful element of social 
and political discontent underlying their formulations, and which 
looked to some kind of social reversal (“last shall be first”, day 
of judgment, millennary peace and plenty) even if there was little 
awareness of the link except perhaps in some broad simple ways. 

We can illustrate these points and at the same time show how 
Jewish and Iranian elements mingled with Greek in the images 
and ideas that most deeply moved men at this time. Thus we may 
take some connected prayers from magical papyri. In the Judais- 
ing version, the oldest of those in question, we find the sketch 
of an archaic gnosticism. It is a prayer for salvation (of the kind 
called a stele) and seems to derive from a yet more important 
secret work (now lost). Its liturgical form suggests an association 
with the cult of Seth-Typhon, in which all sorts of mysteries 
were celebrated. The reciter identifies himself with Man, “the 
most beautiful creation of the god who is in heaven”: Man, who is 
“made of spirit, of dew, and of earth”—that is, Adam. Man longs 
to escape from the rule of Fate and to return to the original form 
from which he has fallen. The god invoked is the Propator or All¬ 
father, the Aion dwelling in the zenith of heaven. He is called Master 
of the Pole enthroned on the constellation of the Chariot: that is, 
he is the Biblical Sabaoth on his throne and in his chariot. He is 
served by myriads of angels and nearby at his side is the aion 
Sophia, Wisdom. Adam is here proclaiming that he knows the 
divine name of Salvation from the Demon of the Air and from Fate. 


MARIA THE JEWESS 

Two more obscure texts have the same basis: the Greek magical 
papyrus Mimaut, where a prayer to Helios is phrased as if spoken 
by Adam, and a Greek formulary (often called the Mithraic 
I .iturgy) where the being from whose mouth comes the incanta¬ 
tions is a Perfect Body made by the right hand of deity: that is, 
he is Adam. Born of an impure womb, he laments and hopes that 
psychic power will be restored when the Fatality dispensed by 
the spheres is wiped out. 9 The alchemists took over the symbol of 
Adam for the knowledge which liberates man and gives him 
mastery over living process. Zosimos and Olympiodoros see 
Adam as the Universal Man, who is identified with Hermes- 
Thoth. The four letters of his name—that there were only three in 
1 lebrew was unknown—represent the four elements. Olympio¬ 
doros calls Adam virgin earth, igneous earth, carnal earth, and 
sanguineous earth. Eve was assimilated to Pandora, with Prome¬ 
theus and Epimetheus taken to represent soul and body. In the 
Geponika, a recipe for keeping serpents out of pigeon-houses, 
attributed to Demokritos, advises the writing of the name of 
Adam on the four corners. 10 

Maria the Jewess belongs to the earlier alchemic traditions. She 
probably existed not very long after Bolos, and was much cited 
by Zosimos and other later writers. Zosimos knew her as Maria 
or Miriam, the sister of Moses; and we must not forget the role 
of Mary, mother of Jesus, in Gnostic evangels. But though there 
was the usual tendency to turn early alchemists into mythical 
figures, there is no reason why Maria should not have been an 
historical person with that name—just as Kleopatra may also have 
been, despite the inevitable identification with the great Queen. 
Maria and Kleopatra were common enough names. Though Maria’s 
writings survive only in quotations, she stands out as a very 
definite character, indeed the first alchemist without any of 
the indeterminate elements that surround Demokritos-Bolos, 
Ostanes, Hermes. She was highly inventive and deeply interested 
in chemical experiments and in the instruments that made them 
effective and precise. She elaborated all the essential appliance 
on which alchemy or chemistry was to carry on for near two mil¬ 
lennia: kerotakis, hot-ash bath, dung-bed, water-bath. And she 
seems to have perfected the apparatus for distilling liquids. She des¬ 
cribed her methods of construction in much detail, even to the 
point of telling how to make copper tubes from sheet metal. She 








244 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

seems to have varied her experiments a great deal, but to have 
been specially absorbed in alloys of copper and lead. She speaks 
of Our Lead as distinct from common lead, perhaps meaning 
antimony or some metallic sulphide. Like Hermes and Agatho- 
daimon, she is credited with the aphorism, “Unless you strip 
bodies of the corporeal state, you will not advance”—that is, 
unless you take the metallic state from metals. 



The alchemists seem to have been the first investigators of 
distillation. At times some sort of sublimation of liquids had been 
attempted, e.g. seawater had been heated in a covered cauldron, 
then the drops condensed on the lid were shaken off and used as 
drinking water. Also oil-of-pitch was made by heating pitch and 
condensing the vapour on fleeces; and mercury was produced by 
heating cinnabar on an iron saucer in a pan covered by a pot 
called ambix, on which the mercury vapour condensed. But none 
of these crude devices was truly a still or an alembic, which con¬ 
sists of three parts: the vessel in which the material is heated, a 
cool part for condensing the vapour, a receiver. Maria describes 
the still and seems to have invented it. The balneum Mariae or 
baine-marie seems first used as a name by Arnald of Villanova in 
the 14th century. Zosimos cites Maria’s account: 


MARIA THE JEWESS 245 

I’ll describe the tribikos to you. For so is called the apparatus made of 
copper and set out by Maria, the transmitter of the art. She says as 
follows: 

Make three tubes of ductile copper a little thicker than that of a 
pastrycook’s copper frying-pan. Their length should be about a cubit 
and a half. Make three such tubes and also make a tube of a hands- 
breadth width and an opening proportioned to that of the still-head. 
The three tubes should have their openings adapted like a nail to the 
neck of a light receiver, so that they have the thumb-tube and the two 
linger-tubes joined laterally on either hand. Towards the bottom of 
the stillhead are three holes adjusted to the tubes; and when these are 
fitted, they are soldered in place—the one above receiving the vapour 
in a different fashion. Then, setting the stillhead on the earthenware 
pan containing the sulphur, and luting the joints with flourpaste, place 
at the tube-ends glass flasks, large and strong so that they won’t 
break with the heat coming from the water in the middle. Here is the 
figure. 11 

Our manuscript dates from 700 years after Zosimos wrote, so 
that the drawing has become rather schematised during its 
repetitions; but it is still recognisable as based on the original 
illustration by Maria. The standard type of still was described by 
Synesios, commenting on a work by Demokritos: 

What he [Demokritos] says, Dioskoros, is as follows . . . And put it 
into a flask on the hot-ash bed, not over a direct fire but on a gentle 
hot-ash bed, which is a kerotakis. During the action of the heat there 
is adapted, to the flask above, a glass apparatus with a mastarion [breast¬ 
shaped cup] fitting on to it. And put it on top of it, and receive the 
water that comes up through the breast and keep it and putrefy it. 
This is called Divine Water. 12 

Zosimos describes another type of still that remained popular 
till the 18th century and was called a Cold Still, as the liquid in 
the body was not boiled but only gently warmed. Recall Hermes’ 
Heat of the Brooding Bird. 

We can construct a series to show the development of the still. 
First came a simple condensation of seawater on a pot-lid as men¬ 
tioned above: there is a description of the method by Alexandros 
of Aphrodisias, a commentator on Aristotle. Then the mercury 
was condensed in a flask-like vessel turned upside-down; there is a 
description by Dioskorides. Then, probably, the lid was turned in 
to provide a container for the distillate. The next and crucial 
step was the addition of a pipe to lead the distillate off. But such 
9 
















246 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

a pipe was liable to cause trouble if the liquid boiled up quickly, 
right over the still-head. So Maria put in the wide vertical tube 
between boiling-pan and still-head. Demokritos got something 
of the same effect by using a long-necked flask; and Zosimos, 
who didn’t want to boil liquids, kept to the old type. 13 

In all, some 80 pieces of apparatus are known: furnaces, lamps, 
water-baths, ash-baths, dung-beds, reverberatory furnaces, scori- 
fying pans, crucibles, dishes, beakers, jars, flasks, phials, pestles 
and mortars, filters, strainers, ladles, string-rods, stills, sublima- 
tories, all make their first known appearance as laboratory appara¬ 
tus in the workshops of the alchemists; and they have persisted, 
in variously modified forms, up till today. 

There was a reflux apparatus for treating metals with vapours. 
The most important of this type was called the kerotakis , meaning 
an artist’s palette. An artist painted with a mixture of pigments and 
melted wax, and he had to keep his colours on the kerotakis , a 
metal sheet shaped like a bricklayer’s trowel, which was kept hot 
over a pot of charcoal. The alchemist no doubt took over the 
palette in his attempts to soften metals and impregnate them with 
colours—just as the artist softened his wax and mixed it up with 
the colours, which were thus given a new quality of permanence 
and used to create earthly forms in a new dimension, that of the 
picture. First the alchemist tried to adapt the kerotakis for the 
treatment of metals by means of heated vapours. A vessel below 
the kerotakis held a vaporised substance capable of attacking 
metals, while an inverted cup, set over the sheet, condensed the 
vapour into a liquid which flowed back. (The reflux extractor is 
the closed modern analogy.) Then came attempts to refine and 
elaborate the heating and condensing systems, and to use some 
kind of grating or strainer—perhaps to stop solid fragments of 
metal from dropping back into the base. 14 

The MSS give us no clear account of how the kerotakis was 
used. It has been suggested that something like the following 
occurred. The alchemist took sulphur (sometimes mixed with 
arsenic sulphides) and put it in the lower part, while the kerotakis 
proper held the metal to be treated: copper and perhaps some gold 
and silver too. The covers were then luted on, with a small hole 
left for the escape of heated air. A small cup was put over the hole. 
The alchemist then started off his fire. The vapour of sulphur 
made its attack on the metal. The resulting sulphide dissolved in, 
or mixed with, the excess of liquid sulphur and ran through the 


247 


MARIA THE JEWESS 

sieve or grating back into the lower part or Hades. The black 
mixture of sulphur and sulphides remaining there was the scoria 
or black lead. The alchemist desulphurised it by heating or by 
treating it with lime or oil-of-nitre, and then smelted it. What 
emerged was an alloy of the original metals, doubtless with the 
addition of some sulphur and arsenic (if arsenic was present in 
the attacking vapours). Kadmia or arsenic (the Etesian Stone) 
seem brought in at some stage. During the gentle roasting and 
smelting that followed, the kadmia perhaps added zinc to the alloy 
and thus created a sort of brass or latten containing copper, 
lead, zinc. The alloy thus thus produced was at times used in gold¬ 
doubling. 



3 5. Reconstruction of the three-armed still 


All this may seem, it has been pointed out, a very complicated 
way of preparing an alloy. But we must remember that with his 
limited means of testing and his almost total lack of quantitative 
methods for assessing and determining what happened at each 
phase of his operations, the alchemist had very little hope of 
eliminating chance factors, unnecessary factors, and working 
out just what were the essential factors for bringing about the 
desired results. He could not be precise as to what composition 
he had achieved. His aim throughout was to change the colour 
of metals in a certain direction; and even when he did something 
that was successful or seemed to be, he had no clear method for 









































248 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

deciding just what substances or processes had brought the 
result about. He could no doubt repeat experiments and get rid 
of certain obviously unimportant factors, but he was unable to 
grasp the pattern of the process in a truly concise and adequate 
way. And the inability to grasp and define the pattern thus in any 
one experiment meant in turn that he could not effectively 
correlate one experiment with another and build up a coherent 
body of chemical knowledge. He had to content himself with 
endless drudgery of inconclusive results and marvellous moments 
when he seemed to have stumbled on the pure secret of 
transformation. 

Some operations on the kerotakis were yet more complicated 
than the operation described. The alchemist strove to achieve a 
series of continuous colour-changes, blackening, whitening, 
yellowing, and then rising to the violet glow of matter-in-the- 
highest. Perhaps he got his blackness by the conversion of copper 
and other metals into their black sulphides. Then he smelted it 
into a yellow metal. The whitening was doubtless more difficult. 
If the black product had been dried before smelting, it might 
have been whitened as a result of the efflorescence of salts from 
the Divine Water; or some white material (compounds of 
mercury, arsenic, antimony) might have been added. Some final 
tincture or a cleaning of the produced metal may have begot¬ 
ten the iosis. But all this is largely guesswork. 15 

In any event it seems to have been Maria who was mainly 
responsible for the apparatus which enabled the alchemist to 
produce such results as he did get, and which in the end provided 
the basis on which chemistry proper could develop. 

She seems to have had a strong conviction of the unitary nature of 
process. We saw earlier how the Kitab al-Uabib thus described 
her. 16 Ibn Umail attributes to her imagery of the above-and- 
below type, which accords with her interest in the processes of 
the still or the alembic. These processes were seen as the move¬ 
ment up and down of vapours and water; condensation was a 
kind of rain, bringing down the water in a purified form from 
the heavens. 

The Strength of the Lowest and the Highest—as Hermes the Crown 
of the Sages, has said to us—has passed into that Water, and con¬ 
sequently it will not leave that which has been dissolved in it in dark¬ 
ness, the water reviving the dust like the rainbearing cloud . . . 


249 


MARIA THE JEWESS 

Maria [Mariya] also said: The Water which I have mentioned is an 
Angel and descends from the sky and the earth accepts it on account of 
its [the earth’s] moistness. The water of the sky is held by the water 
of the earth, and the water of the earth acts as its servant, and its Sand 
[serves] for the purpose of honouring it. Both the waters are gathered 
together and the Water holds the Water. The Vital Principle [Kiyan] 
holds the Vital Principle, and the Vital Principle is whitened by the 
Vital Principle. She meant the Coction of the Soul with the Spirit 
until both mix and are thoroughly cooked together and become a 
single thing like Marble. ... 

[As for the Angel] she meant by this the Divine Water which is the 
Soul. She named it Angel because it is spiritual and because that Water 
has risen from the earth to the sky of the Birba [from bottom to top of 
the Alembic], 

As for her statement [the Water] descends from the sky, she meant 
by this its return to their Earth; and this Angel she mentioned I shall 
explain to you another way so that you may be aware of both explana¬ 
tions, if Allah will. She meant by this the Child which they said will 
be born for them in the Air while Conception has taken place in the 
Lower [region]—this being through the Higher Celestial Strength 
which the Water has gained by its absorption of the Air. Regarding 
this, Hermes said: The strength of the Highest and the Lowest will 
be found in it. 17 

These passages seem genuinely to refer to Maria’s theory, for 
they fit in so well with her devices. We may say that she developed 
the conception set out by Hermes of the macrocosm-microcosm 
relationship and gave it a more dynamic and concrete basis by 
linking the above-below system with the actual process of 
alchemy in a direct way. We cannot prove that she also worked 
out the analogy of mating and childbirth as expression of the 
triadic formula; but it is quite possible that she did so. We perhaps 
see her woman’s-interests in her use of cooking imagery, her 
comparison of the still-tube’s thickness with that of a pastry¬ 
cook’s copper frying-pan, and her use of flour paste for luting. 
It would be in character for her to use the sexual metaphor for 
the fusion of substances. That metaphor did exist among the 
Greek alchemists, though not in such an expanded form as among 
the Arabs and the medieval alchemists of the West. In a work 
attributed to John the Archpriest, but actually consisting of 
excerpts from Zosimos, we meet the analogy of the alchemical 
process to the conception and birth of a child. 18 The imagery of 
the water reviving the dust is closely paralleled by passages in 


























250 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


2 5 I 



36. Stages in the evolution of the still 


Kleopatra’s Dialogue : “how the highest descends to the lowest... 
how the blessed waters descend from on high to visit the dead 
afflicted in darkness and shade . . . The cloud sustains them . . 
and the cloud waters the plant.” Here the imagery becomes that 
of the Osirian Resurrection. Ibn Umail has said further: “They 
name this Water also the Rain that revives the Lower World, 
and [by] all this [is to be understood] the Pure Silvery Water 
which is the Gold of the Sages. The excellent master Hermes 
named it the God with Many Names.” 19 Indeed in view of the 
certain closeness of these passages from the Ibn Umail with 
Greek thought, we may take also the following: 


MARIA THE JEWESS 

In this water will be found the strength of the Highest and the Lowest. 
As Hermes, the excellent sage who is the Ocean of Wisdom, said: 

Give it predominance over the Highest and the Lowest. It will then 
perform wonders—the thing and its opposite because it will both 
blacken and whiten. It will also redden. It will harden the Moist and 
soften the Dry. Its brother is the Ash which has been extracted from 
the Ash with their Second White Body, which they named the Sanctified 
Thirsty Earth; and the Ash, which is the Ferment, they named the Fer¬ 
ment of Gold. The Gold is their Divine Water; and the Divine Water 
is the Ferment of the Bodies; and the Bodies are their Earth. The 
Ferment of the Divine Water, which is the Ferment of the Bodies, is 
the Ash and it is the Ferment of Ferments. 

Maria the Sage, in several places in her books, named it the Rennet, 
because it coagulates their Water in their Second Earth, which is their 
Second Body. It is the Crown of Victory; and they called it Gold on 
account of its excessive whiteness, in connection with the expression: 
“their Water in their Second Earth, and their Silvery Water”. They 
meant by their words “Mix Gold with Gold” the admixture of Water 
and Ash, and their Water and the Second Whitening Body. 

Hermes said: O my Son, cultivate Gold in a White Silvery Earth. 

Hermes here called their White Water Gold because the Tincturing 
Soul is concealed in their Water when the Spirit becomes predominant 
over it by reason of its Colour and Whiteness. He called their Whitening 
Body, White Silvery Earth. 20 

The Alchemical Lexikon gives: “Silvery stream, vapour of sulphur 
and mercury”; and the phrase Silvery Water or Water of Silver 
is found in at least four other places in Greek texts. As for 
the comment about “becoming a single thing like Marble” in the 
previous text, we have the parallel in Demokritos-Bolos: If the 
medicine becomes somewhat like marble, great is the mystery.” 21 
Rennet, however, does not seem to occur in Greek writings, nor 
does White Silvery Earth—though White Earth is often found. 

We may add that a Maria the Egyptian or ICopt is also men¬ 
tioned. A Book attributed to Ostanes tells how the philosophers, 
having seen a mysterious stone with an admirable colour, could 
not make out what it was, and so made a search all over the world 
to find the mine from which it came, but could learn nothing. 
Then they wrote to Maria to tell her of the wonderful colour and 
substance of the stone, about which they had inquired in vain. 
They added that the characteristics of this stone were that it was 
soft to the touch and shone in darkness. They begged her to tell 
them what it was if she knew. She replied that her predecessors 












252 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

in the great work had been of the opinion that this stone came 
from a mountain in the midst of the sea and that it shone from the 
bottom of abysses like a torch in a dark night. We are also told 
that Maria wrote to Ostanes to ask his advice on certain matters 
and that he replied. 

Whether there was any such Maria or whether she was merely 
an invention of the Egyptian school, meant to outshine Maria the 
Jewess, we have no idea. Probably she was a mere propagandist 
fiction. The second passage, however, makes her subsidiary to 
the Iranian school. The confusion is made yet more obscure by the 
fact that an Arab treatise (known in a Latin version under the 
name of Calid and Morienus ) attributes to Maria the discourse with 
the philosophers that Kleopatra pronounces in the Greek text, 
and that the Fihrist refers to the Book of Maria the Kopt with the 
Sages , 22 








****** 



— Jl -U_ 




p- J 

Tnrrrrr 




rn 




1 «j , 





37. Kerotakis or reflux apparatus, as shown in a Greek MS 


12 

Kleopatra 

The alchemist Kleopatra seems associated with the school of 
Maria. We have under her name an important sheet with diagrams 
and a Dialogue. As we noted, she was linked with the famous 
Queen Kleopatra, to whom the Arab writer Ibn-Wahs-Chijjah 
attributed a book on poisons and to whom the Romans gave a 
book on cosmetics. From Aetios we can recover some fragments 
of the latter work, for instance the recipe for a smegna or unguent. 1 
There is indeed nothing improbable about the Queen being 
connected with a work on cosmetics; and as the manufacture of 
cosmetics and perfumes contributed to the working-out of 
alchemic methods, there may thus be a slight link between her 
and the art. The practical aspect of Kleopatra the alchemist 
appears in the assignment to her of a work on weights and 
measures. 

In the school of Kleopatra and Maria we find Komarios, by 
whom we have a fragmentary thesis. He was called high priest, 
philosopher, and teacher of Kleopatra. 2 Her contact with him 
seems like that of Isis with Amnael or Thessalios with Asklepios: 
a revelatory initiation. For he is described as seated on a throne 
and she learns from him the doctrine she transmits to later 
philosophers. His name is possibly derived from the Aramaic 
Komar, high priest. 3 Indeed the Dialogue may be a translation 
from the Syriac into Greek. 4 However that may be, it is a work of 
the utmost interest for the understanding of alchemic ideas and 
images. 

First, however, the single page called her Goldmaking. The 
title is at the top. Three concentric circles enclose axioms. In the 
first ring we read: “One is the All and by it the All and in it the 
All and if it does not contain the All it is nothing.” In the inner 
ring: “The Serpent is One, he who has the Venom with two 
Compositions”, synthemata. 5 That is, the effective force comes 












254 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

from the unity achieved out of the fusion of two opposites. In 
the centre are the signs of mercury, silver and gold; the rayed 
sun-sign is that found also in Assyria and in the heretical Valentinian 
writings. Below on the left is the serpent Ouroboros making a 
circle with his tail in his mouth and enclosing the axiom, “One 
the All . On the right is an alembic with two points; on its 
furnace is the word phota , flames, lights. 6 

Here we see clearly combined the Hermetic doctrine of unity, 
the Marian stress on experimental work and on the alembic in 
particular, and the triadic formula of what constitutes develop¬ 
ment. The Dialogue of Kleopatra is in tone close to the passages 
attributed to Maria and Hermes by Ibn Umail. The imagery of the 
waters reviving the dead is very Egyptian: 

Then Kleopatra said to the Philosophers, “Look at the nature of plants, 
what they come from. Some come down from the mountains and grow 
out of the earth, and some grow up from the valleys and some come 
from the plains. But look how they develop. For it is at certain seasons 
of the year you must gather them; and you take them from the islands 
of the sea and from the most lofty place. And look at the air that 
ministers to them, and the nourishment circling round them, so that 
they may not perish or die. Look at the divine water that gives them 
drink, and the air that governs them after they have been given a body 
in a single being.” 

Ostanes and those with him answered Kleopatra. “In you is hidden 
a strange and terrible mystery. Enlighten us, throwing your light on 
the elements. Tell us how the highest descends to the lowest, and how 
the lowest rises to the highest, and is united with it, and what is the 
element that accomplishes these things. And tell us how the blessed 
waters visit the corpses lying in Hades fettered and afflicted in darkness, 
and how the Medicine of Life reaches them and rouses them as if 
woken by their possessors from sleep; and how the new waters, both 
brought forth on the bier and coming after the light penetrates them 
at the beginning of their prostration and how the cloud supporting 
the waters rises from the sea.” 

And the Philosophers, pondering what had been revealed to them, 
rejoiced. 

Kleopatra said to them, The waters, when they come, awake the 
bodies and the spirits that are imprisoned and weak. For they again 
undergo oppression and are enclosed in Hades, and yet in a little while 
they grow and rise up and put on various glorious colours like the 
flowers in spring and the spring itself rejoices and is glad at the beauty 
they wear. 

For I tell this to you who are wise. When you take plants, elements. 


KLEOPATRA 255 

and stones from their places, they appear to you to be mature. But they 
are not mature till the fire has tested them. When they are clad in the 
glory from the fire and the shining colour of it, then rather will appear 
their hidden glory, their sought-for beauty, being transformed to the 
divine state of fusion. For they are nourished in the fire and the embryo 
grows little by little nourished in its mother’s womb; and when the 
appointed month comes near is not held back from coming out. Such 
is the procedure of this worthy art. The waves and surges one after 
another in Hades wound them in the tomb where they lie. When the 
tomb is opened, they come out from Hades as the babe from the 
womb.” 7 



58. Reconstruction of Kerotakis (M=Metals; P=Palette) 

The whole background of this passage is essentially Egyptian. 
The imagery of the dead lying in their underground caves and 
waiting for the waters of resurrection had immemorial roots in 
Egypt. If we look at some of the ancient Pyramid texts we seem 
to be very close in idiom to the alchemic works though the 
earlier phrases refer wholly to the personal immortalisation of the 
Pharaoh in a cosmogonic situation. Note how in the following 
passage the waters are both those of the reviving Nile and those 
from the divine father’s penis, the mother’s vulva, so that the 
fusion of natural and sexual imagery in Kleopatra’s parable is 
exactly paralleled: 






















256 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The waters of life which are in the sky, the waters of life which are in 
the earth come. The sky burns for you, the earth trembles for you, 
before the birth of the god. The mountains divide, a god comes into 
being, the god has power over his body. The two mountains divide, 
N comes into being, N has power over his body. 

Behold N, his feet shall be kissed by the pure waters which come 
into being through Atum, which the penis of Shu makes, which the 
vulva of Tefnut brings into being. They have come to you, they have 
brought you the pure waters which issue from their Father. They 
purify you, they fumigate you, N, with incense. 

You lift up the sky with your hand. You tread down the earth with 
your foot. 8 

Kleopatra continues with her metaphor of the womb and then 
carries on with her exposition: 

The philosophers contemplate their beautiful work, just as a loving 
mother does the baby she has borne, and then they seek how they may 
nourish it, just as the mother does her infant. But for this art they use 
the Waters instead of milk. The art imitates the infant, since it is formed 
just as the baby is formed, and when it shall be brought to perfection 
in all things, behold the mystery that is sealed up inside. 

But now I ^ will tell you clearly where the elements and plants are 
found, and I’ll begin by speaking in riddles. Go up to the highest 
point in the rugged mountain among the trees, and look, there is a 
rock in the mountain-ridge. From this rock take arsenic and use it 
for the divine process of whitening. And look, in the middle of the 
mountain, below the male there lies the mate with whom he is united 
and in whom he delights; for nature rejoices in nature, and without 
her there is no union. 

Then go down to the Egyptian sea and bring up with you from its 
source in the sand the substance called nitron and unite it with the 
other things, and it brings forth the all-tingling beauty, and without 
it there is no union for the mate in due measure. See how nature cor¬ 
responds with nature, and when you gather together all things in 
equal measure, then natures conquer natures and delight in one another. 

See, you wise men, and understand. See the fulfilment of the art 
in the joining-together of the bride and bridegroom and in their 
becoming one. See the plants and their different kinds. See, I speak to 
you all the truth and again I’ll say to you: See and understand that the 
clouds, which bear aloft the blessed Water, come up from the sea; and 
they water the lands and cause the seeds and flowers to grow. In the 
same way our Cloud, coming forth from our Element, bears on high 
the divine Waters and gives drink to the Plants and Elements, and 
needs nothing from other earths. 


KLEOPATRA 


257 


Again we note how much more vivid is Kleopatra’s writing than 
most alchemic texts. Though she treats nature symbolically, 
we feel that she has her eye on it and loves it: 

See, my brothers, the incredible mystery that is entirely unknown. 
See, the truth has been revealed to you. See how you water your earths 
and how you nourish your seeds, so that you may cause the fruit to 
be borne in its season. Hear then and understand and inquire closely 
into what I say. 

Take from the four elements the arsenic which is highest and lowest, 
the white and the red, the male and female in equal balance, so that 
they may be joined to one another. For just as the bird warms her eggs 
with her heat and brings them to their appointed term, so yourselves 
warm your composition and bring it to its appointed term. And when 
you’ve borne it out and caused it to drink of the divine Waters in the 
Sun and in heated places, cook it upon a gentle fire with virginal milk, 
keeping it from the smoke. Then shut the ingredients up in Hades and 
stir carefully until the preparation becomes thicker and does not run 
from the fire. Then remove it from the fire; and when the soul and 
spirit are unified and become one, project upon the body of silver and 
you will have gold such as the treasuries of kings do not contain. 

I lades, the underworld of the dead, is the lower part of the 
apparatus in question. We shall later explore the symbolism of the 
alchemic apparatus. Kleopatra goes on to describe the processes 
of transformation as a resurrection from Hades, from the black¬ 
ness of the lowest forms of matter: 

See the mystery of the philosophers which our fathers swore to you 
not to reveal or publish. It has a divine Form and a divine Activity. 
For that is divine which, by union with divinity, renders substances 
divine. In it the spirit acquires a body and mortal things a soul and by 
receiving the spirit which escapes from the ingredients they are over¬ 
powered and overpower one another. For the spirit, full of vanity and 
frailty of heart, overpowers bodies so that they are not whitened and 
do not receive the beauty and colour with which they are endowed by 
the creator. For the body and the spirit and the soul are weakened 
through the darkness that extends over them. 

The divine, in this idiom, is not an abstract quality, something 
outside existence; it is simply the very quick of life, the element 
of qualitative change and of transformative leaps which cannot 
be reduced to any mechanistic formula; it is present in all things 
insofar as they possess qualities and organisational cohesions of 




















258 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

their distinctive own. The alchemist seeks to grasp the laws, the 
dynamic and dialectical systems, at work in the living processes 
of change and development; and it is because he gains only 
baffled glimpses, despite his conviction of having found the 
essential clues, that he feels a darkness clogging and obscuring the 
free and clear movement that he intuits and seeks to reproduce. 
Identifying, as he does, his own mental and emotional processes 
with those of nature, he feels his own confusions, difficulties, and 
uncertainties reflected in the behaviour of the substances he treats. 

But when the spirit of darkness and of foul smell is rejected, so that 
no stench and no shadow of darkness appears, then the body is clothed 
with light, and the soul and the spirit rejoice at darkness put in flight 
from the body. And the soul, calling to the body now full of light, 
cries out, Awaken from Hades! Rise up from the tomb and rouse 
yourself from darkness! For you have clothed yourself with spirituality 
and divinity, since the voice of the resurrection has sounded and the 
pharmakon of life has entered into you!” 

Such statements must not be read with the modern connotation 
of the words. Just as the divine is the life-force, the spirit is 
pneuma , a material substance or force, which is merely subtler, 
freer, more volatile than matter in the ordinary sense. Above all, 
pneuma is that in each individual which links his share of the life- 
force with its universal flow and gives him fellowship with all 
things inside the system of complex correspondences and 
affinities. The resurrection that the alchemist seeks in himself 
and in his materials is not a disappearance into some quite 
different dimension of time-space; it is something that exists and 
manifests itself here and now, on earth; it is the movement from 
a lower level of life to a higher level, from one level of conscious¬ 
ness to a level with a qualitatively higher centre of organisation. 
It is hardly too much to say that the concepts of development 
and evolution which in variously limited and imperfect forms 
have begun to come up since the 18 th century were present in 
alchemic thought in an obscurely intuitive way, incapable of 
basing themselves securely on an adequate scientific methodology, 
and yet passionately stirring the alchemist with a sense of grasping 
the core of the life-process. The intuitions of development thus 
fall back all the while into mystical formulations, into sterile 
recipes hidden in esoteric diction and symbol—as much to protect 
the alchemist against recognising his inability to apply his gnosis as 


KLEOPATRA 


259 


to exclude the profane who would mock at his weaknesses without 
being able to share his deep fugitive glimpses of the formative 
and integrative processes of nature. 

For the spirit is again made happy in the body, as is also the soul, 
and runs with joyous haste to embrace it and does embrace it. Darkness 
no longer has dominion over the body, since it is a subject of light, 
and they will not suffer separation again for eternity. And the soul 
rejoices in her home, because, after the body had been hidden in dark¬ 
ness, she found it filled with light And she united with it, for it had 
become divine towards her and it is now her home. For it had put on 
the right of divinity and darkness has gone from it. And the body and 
the soul and the spirit were all united in love and had become one: in 
which unity the mystery has been concealed. In their union the mystery 
has been accomplished, its dwelling-place sealed up and a monument 
built full of light and divinity. 

For Fire has unified and transformed them, and from the hollow ot 
its Womb they have gone forth, exactly as from the Womb of the Waters 
and of the Air which ministers to them. And Fire brought them forth 
from Darkness into Light, from Grief into Joy, from Sickness into 
Health, and from Death into Life. It clothed them with a divine 
spiritual glory such as they were not clothed with before. For in them 
has been hidden the whole Mystery which exists as something divine 
and unchangeable. 

She goes on with her statement of the complexity of dynamic 
transformations in matter. Nature is seen, not as a series of 
mixtures in which the ingredients all exist on the same qualitative 
level and are thus computable in arithmetical terms or reducible to 
various geometrical atomic patterns. The mixtures and the 
patterns exist and are relevant to the inquiry; but the problem is 
to move beyond them to a grasp of the unseizable moment of 
total change, in which there is both continuity and discontinuity. 

For the bodies coalesce with one another because of their virtue [their 
essential and dynamic quality, which makes them both what they are 

and what they may be]. , 

In coming forth from the earth they clothe themselves with light and 
a divine glory, since they have grown according to nature and have 
undergone a change in form and have arisen from sleep and have gone 
forth from Hades. For the Womb of Fire has given them birth and 
they have clothed themselves with a glory from it. It has brought 
them to a single unity. Their likeness has been perfected in body soul, 
soul, and spirit, and they have become one. 






























KLEOPATRA 


260 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

For Fire has been subjected to Water, and Earth to Air, in the same 
way as Air with Fire, and Earth with Water, and Fire and Water with 
.barth, and Water with Air, and they have become one. 

For the One has been formed from Plants and Vapours; and from 
Natures and from Sulphur a divine substance has been produced 
which pursues every Nature and overpowers it. See, natures have 
overpowered and conquered Natures, and as a result they change 
Natures and Bodies as well as things that proceed from their Nature. 
As the fugitive has entered into the non-fugitive, and that which over¬ 
powers into that which does not overpower, and they have been united 
to one another. 

That is the Mystery we have learned, my Brothers, from God and 
from our Fathers, the high priest Komarios. See, I have spoken to 
you, my Brothers, all the truth that has been hidden away with many 
sages and prophets. 3 


The philosophers then end the meeting. “You have amazed me 
Kleopatra, with what you’ve told us. Blessed is the womb that 
bore you.” 

Indeed her discourse is the most imaginative and deeply-felt 
document left by the alchemists. It has a strong personal tone. 
We feel in its deep sense of life and its possibilities, an intense 
delight in the beauty of the earth as well as a sustained conviction 
in the powers of men to find the most fruitful and harmonious 
ways of integrating themselves with nature. She is inspired by the 
hope of an elixir, a pharmakon of life, and sees the scientific 
quest, not as a thing in itself, an abstract search for knowledge, 
but as a means of unimaginably enriching human life by integrat- 



39. Ouroboros: St Mark’s MS 299 fi88v 


261 


ing it consciously in the unitary process of the universe. She seems 
to have been the thinker who, for these reasons, most fully set the 
imagery of conception and childbirth in the heart of the alchemic 
idiom. But before we examine that imagery further, we must 
consider the Serpent Ouroboros who appears in Kleopatra’s 
Goldmaking. The snake curving round with his tail in his mouth 
is an obvious emblem of the unity of the cosmos, of eternity, 
where the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. It 
summarises the creed of up-and-down down-and-up, -a circular 
movement of energies and qualities. It symbolises the Philoso¬ 
phers Stone or Egg in which All is included and yet a ferment of 
changes is going on. We have seen it in Kleopatra’s Goldmaking, 
where it appears in both direct and abstract form. In another MS 
the serpent is made of three concentric rings. The outermost is 
scaly, with head and three ears shown in bright red, while the 
eye is white with a black pupil. The middle ring is also scaly and 
is coloured yellow, while the inner one, with four feet, was painted 
all in green. The four feet represented the tetrasomia, and the 
three ears the vapours (perhaps sulphur, mercury, orpiment). In 
a third MS we find a stylised version of the last design: two 
concentric rings with inscriptions close to those of Kleopatra’s 
Goldmaking. A fourth MS has yet another variant; the axioms 
are there in red, but the circles are missing. Perhaps a copyist 
forgot to put them in. There appear also the signs for gold, silver, 
mercury, with those for lead and cinnabar (or the egg). 9 

The tail-biting serpent has a considerable role in magic. A 
Leyden papyrus gives a good example. The text is in Egyptian 
hieratic with Greek inscribed on the inner face. It deals with rites 
brought about by Love envisaged as a great thaumaturgic power: 
the evoking of phantoms, the construction of images of Love, 
the making of a philtre composed of various plants. Recipes tell 
how to succeed in an undertaking, to get or send dreams, con¬ 
sult a deity who appears with a snake’s head, bring someone 
bad luck, put a stop to someone’s anger; then processes for refin¬ 
ing gold, and how to make a talismanic ring by engraving on its 
jasper the figure of the tail-biting snake, which encloses the moon 
with two stars and the sun above. Love, we may note, appears in 
alchemic texts: in the midst of a recipe for transmutation in an 
incomprehensible phrase that seems the shred of some old 
mutilated treatise. And “Love Gold-extractor”, where we are 
dealing with a work by an enigmatic person, Kron-Ammon. 10 





















KLEOPATRA 


262 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Another papyrus, after a long logos made up of many magical 
words addressed to the sun, sets out these directions: “the image, 
andrias, engraved on the stone is a lion-faced Helioros holding in 
his left hand an orb, polos , and [in the right] a whip, and round 
about him an ouroboros, and under the bottom of the stone, this 
name, keep it secret: acha achacha chach chacrchara chach We'may 
note that the grotesque Bes on the back of the Metternich stele 
stands on an elliptical cartouche formed by a serpent with tail in 
mouth which has been taken as a symbol of the abyss. 11 

On the engraved gems we find the Ouroboros enclosing a large 
number of different objects, inscriptions or symbols. For instance, 
on lapis lazuli, Osiris as a mummy; Sarapis with Kerberos at his 
feet; on haematite, the womb-symbol above which stands Isis- 
Tyche with sceptre and horn-of-plenty, and probably Anubis as 
mummy (? Thoueris); the womb-symbol over which are four 
deities, Anubis as mummy, the lion-headed snake Chnoubis, Bes, 
Isis with the horn; again the womb, here globular, with Neph- 
thys (?), Anubis and Osiris as mummies, Isis-Tyche with horn; 
on red jasper, Harpokrates seated on a lotus in a papyrus-boat; 
a scarab; three ring signs; a rider design; a six-rayed ring-sign, 
an amphora with two drooping boughs that grow leaves and 
fruits, or buds—below euthem , probably an error for eutheni, 
euthenei , flourish ; a rough figure that seems bound, with a 

trident-end or an object like an E turned forward over his head_ 

compare the trident piercing the Evil-Eye on Syrian bronze 
pendants. 12 On a carnelian seemingly distorted by heat we find 
a Mil 1 vraic scene: inside the Ouroboros is a head at the top with a 
small oval under five cross-marks, perhaps stars; below, charac¬ 
ters and letters; in the centre a table or couch with bundle, also a 
serpent with oxhead, a monster with ram-head on a snake’s neck 
supported by the hindquarters of a goat; at the bottom, a jackal 
or fox. On one gem the encircling serpent has a seven-rayed 
human head which it turns in to the right, facing a seated Sarapis; 
there are star, scarab, crocodile, under the throne, and a crescent 
and a ladder-sign below the serpent-head. 13 

Generally the Ouroboros has in such designs a cosmic force, 
which magnifies the spell. With such figures as Sarapis or the 
mummied Osiris there may be an underworld significance. The 
snake which entwines the body of Aion on Mithraic monuments 
certainly shows the strong Time-aspect of the symbol. The word 
aion had expanded its means from lifetime, in Homer, to a long 


263 

space of time, and then at last to eternity by the later Hellenistic 
period. At Alexandreia a cult of Aion as the god of Time had 
grown up, in association with Kore, the earthmaiden. On the 
5 th January a statue of the god was brought by torchlight into the 
open from an under-earth sanctuary dedicated to Kore; and while 
pipes and tambourines played, it was carried seven times round the 
temple, then taken below the ground again. We are told that the 
rite signified the birth of Aion on this night by Kore. At Alexan¬ 
dreia, however, the images do not show the entwining snake; 
we see the god seated and naked, his head, hands, and knees 
decorated with gold seals. A statue found at Rome shows a god 
in a short loincloth encircled by a snake, its head resting on his; 
in both hands, pressed close to his body, he holds the ankh, the 
life-symbol; beside him stands a goddess, smaller in size, with the 
Isiac sistrum or rattle. A third statue found at a country-site 
where Domitian had a villa shows the loinclothed god with four 
arms, four wings, an eye in his chest, and lion-heads on his knees 
and stomach. Two serpents creep up on either side (one along a 
tree-trunk, one on a seat-arm); a lion-head and a water-snake 
can be seen on the tree-trunk and a three-headed Kerberos sits 
by his left foot. Lion and hydra, water-snake, represent the union 
and struggle of fire and water, while the four arms and wings stand 
for the four winds as the four cosmic forces. Macrobius in his 
Saturnalia says that the three heads of Gerberus stands for present, 
past and future. Aion became merged with Mithras as god of 
Time, and we see the snake twining round his body; sometimes 

















264 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

the snake bites its own tail. As Helios-Mithras he became a high 

god by the 2nd century a.d., but still had his underworld 
aspect . 14 

The way in which Aion merges with Ouroboros can be seen in 
a Secret Stele from a magical papyrus, with its emphasis on 
circular motion: 

Hail whole structure of the pneuma of the air. Hail, pneuma that 
traverses all space from heaven to earth, and after the earth, taken to 
the central hollow of the world, right up to the extremities of the 
a yss. Hail, pneuma that enters into me, takes possession of me, and 
eaves me as God wills in his goodness. Hail, principle and end of 
immoveable Nature. Hail, revolution of the stars that tirelessly accom¬ 
pany your service. Hail, splendour of the solar rays in the service of 
the universe. Hail, circle of the Moon that lights up the night with 
unequal lustre. Hail, all the pneumata of the eidola of the air Hail 

you to whom one gives the hail in benediction. Brothers and Sisters’ 
Holy Ones. 

O great, very great, inconceivable circular edifice of the world- 
celestial Pneuma, inside the sky; aitherial, inside aither; watery, earthly’ 
igneous, aerial; luminous, dark; glittering with the light of the stars’ 
humid-burning-cold! I praise you, god of gods, you who have put 
together the universe member by member, who have made a reservoir 
of waters of the abyss by setting them on an invisible foundation 
separated heaven from earth, and covered the heaven with eternal 
wings of gold, fixed the earth on eternal bases; you who have suspended 
the aither at the culminating point of the heavens, spread the air dis- 
persed into all places by the self-moving winds, and set the Ocean in a 
circle all round; you bring storms, who thunder, launch lightnings 
who make rain fall, who shake the earth, you who engender the living’ 
God of the Aions. You are great, Lord, God, Master of the Universe. 11 * 

We can feel how Aion could be a great snake-form spiralling 
round in the courses of the stars, twining round all things as the 
oceanic serpent, the very pneuma or life-force of the “incon¬ 
ceivable circular edifice”. If we look back to the consecration of 
t e ring for bringing success mentioned above with an Ouroboros 
enclosing sun and moon cut on a jasper, see how the enclosing 
serpent is directly linked with Aion. On the jasper the name 
Abraxas is set over the sun and on the back of the stone; on the 
gold circlet of the ring “powerful holy ever-efficacious name Iao 
Sabaoth”. During the consecration, with its sacrifice and other 
details, a prayer invokes the gods of the heaven, the gods of the 
earth, the gods of the middle; the magician presents himself as a 


KLEOPATRA 


265 

sort of ail-god,panibeios. He is the Sun, Aphrodite Typhi, Kronos, 
Mother of the Gods, Osiris, Isis, Souchos; he is “Faith [Pis/is] 
that has been found among men, and the prophet of the holy 
names”; he is “the ever-equal (?), he who is born of the Abyss”. 
Also, ‘ ‘I am the sacred bird Phoenix. ’ ’ Then he invokes the Univer sal 
God, the ancestral god: 

Come to me, you who rise from the four winds, you who have breathed 
into man pneuma so that he may live. Master of all the beauties of the 
world, listen, who own the hidden and ineffable name. At this name 
the demons are gripped with fear, the sun on hearing it, the earth are 
smitten with vertigo. Hades is thrown into agitation. At this name, 
rivers, sea, pools, fountains are frozen up. At this name rocks are 
broken. The heaven is your head, the aither your body, the earth your 
feet, the water surrounding you is the Ocean. Agathos Daimon, you 
are the lord that begets, nourishes and makes all things grow. 

The Good Spirit here seems certainly Aion. Soon after, the text 
asks, “What Aion, nourishing the Aion, reigns over the Aions: 
the one immortal god?” 16 

The Phoenix whom the magician identified himself with was 
here a sort of doublet of the Ouroboros, and Aion a symbol of 
perpetually renewed time. Another magic text declares, “Hail, 
Tyche and Daimon of this place . . . Hail, the Envelopper; that 
is, the earth and heaven. Hail, Helios! You are he that is estab¬ 
lished on the holy foundation in an invisible light. You are the 
father of the ever-reborn Aion. You are the father of the unap¬ 
proachable P by sis [Nature]. You are he that contains in yourself 
the mixture of cosmic nature, who have engendered the five 
wandering stars [the planets], who are the viscera of the heavens, 
the entrails of the earth, the flowing of water, the impetuosity of 
fire. . . .” 17 Time is thus identified with Nature, with the mixture 
and the flux of things as also with the enduring structure. A 
prayer to Apollo (assimilated to Abrasax, Adonai, Ancestral 
God, Self-begotten, and Helios) cries, “I adjure the eternal god, 
the Aion of all beings, I adjure V by sis born of herself. . .” 18 

In the symbolism of Kleopatra and the alchemists in general, 
then, the Ouroboros was used to represent the All, which was 
One, in its aspect of Time: that is, as a system in ceaseless develop¬ 
ment, yet revealing a comprehensible structure which could be 
defined in the triadic formula. The cosmos had a beginning and 
an end; it had no beginning and no end; it contained and was 




























266 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

contained; it was stable and unstable, a form inside the flux and a 
flux inside the form. These ideas appear in the magical and reli¬ 
gious texts; but they have a coherent and concrete aspect in the 
thought of the alchemists which they lack elsewhere. For the 
alchemists alone were trying to apply them in the exploration of 
matter and its manifold changes. 

Imagery similar to that surrounding Aion appeared in connec¬ 
tion with Hekate in the Chaldean Oracles. There as Zoe she pro¬ 
duces the life of blessed immortality; as Psyche she ensouls the 
worlds; as Physis (Ananke , Necessity) she rules over the spheres; 
as Heimarmene (Fate) she dominates the earth-zone. “Do not look 
at Physic, for her name is determined by Destiny.” 19 She is also 
a Girdler, encircling and holding all things together. This aspect 
is brought out by the winding snakes on her statue. She is the 
universe with her hairs visible “by the glaring terrifying light” 
of the fiery snakes that symbolise the spheres. She is also a girdler 
as representing the Zone of Dreams; for dreams are brought by 
daimons of the moon or the aerial sphere. She is the mistress of 
the daimons and thus is the dream-sender. Her girdle stands for 
the limit of the aitherial and the sublunar worlds; in each of those 
worlds her ensouling power works differently, for one world is 
seen as composed of regular motion, the other of the conflicting 
powers of spirit and matter. Psyche comes in here as the ensouling 
principle. Created directly by the Father, without mother of other 
intermediary, she “ensouls the All with her warmth”. In a way 



41. Ouroboros: St Mark’s MS 299 fi88v 


KLEOPATRA 2<1 7 

we can refer these images back to the Timaios with its idea of 
“evil encircling material nature and our earthly dwelling-place 
with necessity”. 30 

Ideas about the Ouroboros found their way into the literary 
world e. <*., in Artemidoros and Macrobius. The former, in his 
dream-book, remarks that “the dragon also signifies Time because 
it is long and undulant”. The latter declares the two-headed 
Roman god Janus is the world: 

that is, the heavens, and his name Janus comes from eundo [by going] 
since the world always goes rolling on itself in its globe-form . . . So 
the Phoenicians have represented it in their temples as a dragon curled 
in a circle and devouring its tail, to denote the way in which the world 

feeds on itself and returns on itself. ... 

It is also clear that it’s the Sun honoured under the name of Mercurms 
[Hermes] according to the caduceus that the Egyptians have con¬ 
secrated to the god in the figure of Two Serpents, male and female, 
interlaced. Their upper extremities bend round together, and, embrac¬ 
ing one another, form a circle, while the tails, after forming a knot, 
come together at the haft of the caduceus and are provided with wings 
that start off at this point. 21 

Even more interesting is the passage that ends the second book 
of Claudian’s poem, On the Consulship of Stilicho. Claudian came 
from Egypt and his imagery shows the Egyptian idea of the night- 
journey of the sun through a cave or tunnel in the earth. But the 
introduction of the Ouroboros in association with Natura 
(Physic), the various metals, and the Aged Seer strongly suggests 
one of the alchemic visions of revelation or initiation: 

Far off, unknown, beyond the range of thought, 

scarce reached by gods, the years’ rough haggard mother, 

stands a primeval Cave in whose vast breast 

is Time’s cradle and tomb. A Serpent encloses 

the Cave, consuming all things with slow power 

and green scales always glinting. Its mouth devours 

the backbent tail as with mute motion it traces 

its beginning. At the entrance Nature sits, 

the threshold-guardian, aged and yet lovely, 

and round her gather and flit on every side 

Spirits. A Venerable Man writes down 

immutable laws. He fixes the number of stars 

in every constellation, makes some of them move 

and others hang at rest. So all things live 

or die by predetermined laws . . . 

























268 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

When the Sun rested on the cave’s wide threshold. 

Nature ran in her might to meet him; the Old Man bent 

grey hairs to the proud rays. Of its own accord 

the adamantine door swung open, revealing 

the huge interior, displaying the House 

the Secrets of Time. Here in appointed places 

the Ages dwell, with varying Metals marking 

their aspect. Those of brass are there upheaped, 

there stiff the iron, there the silver gleaming; 

shy of earth-contacts, in a distinguished section, 

is set the flock of golden years. 22 

The Sun chooses one of the richest substances to be marked 
with Stilicho’s name; bids the rest follow him and addresses them 
as they pass. “The consul is come for whom we have delayed an 
Age of nobler ore. Something of a golden age is prophesied. 
Then the Sun enters “his Garden starred with fiery dew, the 
valley round which there runs a river of flame that feeds with 
bounteous rays the dripping weeds on which the horses of the 
sun crop pasturing”. As often with Claudian we find a genuinely 
imaginative reconstruction of the ideas of his period in terms of 
the contemporary situation: here, the need of the Empire to 
find some way of transforming itself. 

There is yet another source by which we may judge the ideas 
held about the Ouroboros. Horapollon—his date is unclear, but 
was probably 5 th century—attempted to explain in Greek the 
meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, with a slight amount of genuine 
knowledge and a great deal of the fantasies characteristic of his 
age. His work is thus of much value in telling us what that age 
made of various symbols. He gives the Ouroboros three main 
meanings: Eternity, the Universe, Power or Dominance. First 
the question of time: 

To signify Eternity [Aion] they draw the Sun and Moon because they 
are eternal elements. But when they want to represent Eternity 
differently, they draw a Serpent with his tail hidden by the rest of the 
body. This the Egyptians call Ouraion, but the Greeks a Basilisk. They 
make it of Gold and set on the [heads of] Gods. [Eternity] because of 
the three kinds of serpents this alone is immortal, the others being 
mortal. Should it blow on any creatures, even without biting, the 
victim dies. So, as it seems to have power of life and death, they put 
it on the heads of the gods. 23 


KLEOPATRA 2 ^9 

The three kinds of snakes were ptjas, chersaia, and chelidoma ; 
Galen says that the ptjas “spat poison into bodies with a good 
aim”. Horapollon’s idea of it blowing may have some connec¬ 
tion with pneuma. But the uraeus (the cobra or asp) with which 
the Egyptians crowned their gods, did not stand for eternity, 
it had been worshipped from early times and was taken by the 
dynastic Egyptians as a sign of sovereignty. The disk of Re (the 
Sun) had a cobra coiled round it. However, an asp sacred to Isis 
was called Thermouthis and came to be regarded as immortal in 
Egypt; Ploutarch calls it unageing. 24 Kyrillos of Alexandreia, 



42. Ouroboros: Paris MS 2225 f8a, stylised version 

in his attack on Julian, says that the snake is the emblem of the 
heavens because of its circular coil and that of time because it is 
“long and many-spiralled”. Artemidoros in his Dream Book sees 
the skin-sloughing serpent among other things as time. 25 The 
symbolism was picked up again at the Renaissance. Marsilio 
Ficino, translator of Plotinos, remarks in a gloss on a passage 
declaring the hieroglyphs to be Platonic ideas made visible: 
“Your thought of Time, for example, is manifold and mobile, 
maintaining that Time is speedy and by a sort of revolution joins 
the beginning to the end; it teaches prudence, produces much 
and destroys it again. The Egyptians comprehend this whole 
discourse in one stable image, painting a winged serpent that 
holds its tail in its mouth.” 26 














KLEOPATRA 


27I 


270 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Next the Ouroboros as the emblem of the universe. Hora- 
pollon says: 

Wishing to represent the cosmos, they draw a serpent devouring its 
own tail, marked with variegated scales. By the scales they suggest 
the stars in heaven. This beast is the heaviest of animals, as the earth 
is the heaviest [of elements]. It is the smoothest, like water And as 
each year it sheds its skin, it [represents] old age. But as each season 
of the year successively returns, it grows young again. But the fact 
that it uses its own body for food signifies that whatever things are 
generated in this world by divine providence are received back into 
it by diminution. 27 

He is punning on geras, which means both “old age” and the 
sloughed snake-skin”. Servius in his commentary on the Aeneid 
says that the Phoenicians use the image of the snake curved in a 
circle and devouring his own tail to represent the universe which 
revolves out of itself and into itself. He adds that “The year was 
indicated by the Egyptians before the invention of letters by the 
drawing of a dragon biting its own tail: because it comes back 
upon itself .” 28 

Thirdly, the Ouroboros represents power or perfection : 

To show a very powerful king, they draw a serpent represented as the 
kosmos with its tail in its mouth and the name of the king written in 
the midst of the coils, thus intimating that the king rules over the 
kosmos. And the name of the serpent among the Egyptians is Meisi. 

To show the king as guardian in another way, they draw the serpent 
m a state of watchfulness. And instead of the name of the king they 
draw a guard. For he is the guardian of the whole world. 

Again when they consider the king to be a cosmic ruler and wish 
to represent this, they draw the serpent and in the middle they represent 
a great palace. And reasonably, for the place of the king’s palace is the 
kosmos. 

When they want to symbolise the king ruling not the whole world 
but a part of it, they draw a serpent cut in half. 

They symbolise the Pantokrator by the perfect animal, again drawing 
a complete serpent. Thus among them that which pervades the whole 
cosmos is Vneuma.^ 

The development of absolute monarchies in the Greek world 
after Alexander, who in various ways made claims to divine 
honours, led in turn to an increase in henotheistic tendencies in 
religion. Especially after the later Stoics produced apologetics 
for the kingship, with the centralised State supposed to reflect 




43. Aion: nude lionheaded figure on globe, serpent entwining thrice 
with head over skull and about to enter mouth (sketched by Bartoll 
from account of Mithraeum found in Rome in 16th century); and statu ® 
from Mithraeum at Ostia, serpent entwining six times with head 
resting on skull; wings with symbols of seasons on back; hands hold 
keys and sceptre; thunderbolt engraved on breast; at base, hammer and 
tongs of Vulcan-Hephaistos, pine and cock of Aesculapius-Asklepios 
(? or Sun and Attis), and caduceus of Mercury-Hermes. 

the divine guidance of the cosmos, the earthly and the heavenly 
ruler became ever more entangled; ideas and practices in politics 
affected ideas and practices in religion, and vice versa. The old 
notion of a King as necessarily Lord of the Cosmos was revived 
on a new level. With the Roman Empire the notion of an Al¬ 
mighty on earth and in heaven inevitably grew stronger. I here 






















272 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

will be a Kosmokrator and all things will be subjected to him,” 
said the astrologer Hephaistion. From Caracalla on, Kosmokrator, 
Ruler of the Universe, became a term for the Roman Emperor. 

The symbol of the snake with tail in mouth attracted also the 
Gnostics and writers of apocrypha. In the Pistis Sophia we read, 
“Outer darkness is a huge dragon with its tail in its mouth; it is 
outside the world and surrounds it completely .” 30 The serpent 
here has connections, however, with Leviathan the dragon of the 
Old Testament, which must be annihilated before the lower 
world can be redeemed . 31 That dragon, depicted also in the 
Ophite diagram described by Origen, appears again in the Acts of 
the Apostle Thomas , “I am the offspring of the serpent nature,” the 
son of him “who encircles the sphere” and who “is around the 
ocean, whose tail lies in his mouth”. The same Acts has the Song 
of the Apostle Judas Thomas in the Land of the Indians, com¬ 
monly called the Hymn of the Pearl; there the desired Pearl lies 
“in the middle of the Sea which is encircled by the snorting ser¬ 
pent”. The quest for the Pearl symbolises the saviour’s descent 
into matter in search of the soul. In the Jewish Acts of Kjriakos 
and Iulitta the hero in his travels meets a dragon, “king of the 
worms of the earth, whose tail lies in his mouth . . . the serpent 
that led astray the first Adam.” 

Another passage in the Pistis Sophia depicts the dragon dif¬ 
ferently , 32 as the supreme sun-god: “But the disk of the sun was 
a great dragon, with its tail in its mouth, which ascended to 
seven powers of the left and was drawn by four powers in the 
shape of white horses.” The Pistis has been taken as the work of 
Syrian sects known as Barbelo-Gnostics, but the original text is 
in Koptic (Sahidic); and here we see a strong Egyptian image. 
Macrobius in his Saturnalia compares the setting and rising of the 
sun to the sloughing of the snake-skin, and ascribes the origin of 
the symbol to the Phoenicians . 33 

The serpent biting his tail was worshipped at Hierapolis in 
Phrygia; also by the Naasenes. The Gnostic Ophites worshipped 
the snake; and Ophiouchos, both a man and a constellation, 
played the main role in the mythology of the Perates, a sect of the 
Ophites, snake-worshippers. Ophiouchos, snake-masterer—the 
author of Philosophoumena compared the Logos, Christ, with him . 34 
The Ophites declared, “We venerate the Serpent because God has 
made it the cause of gnosis for mankind. Ialdabaoth wanted men to 
have no recollection of the Mother or of the Father on high. The 


KLEOPATRA 2 7 3 

Serpent, by tempting them, brought them gnosis and taught the 
man and woman the complete knowledge of the mysteries from 
on high. That is why [its] father Ialdabaoth, mad with fury, cast 
it down from the heavens.” They argued, “Our bowels, thanks to 
which we nourish ourselves and live, do they not reproduce t le 

form of the serpent ?” 35 _ 1 .. 

The primeval serpent existed all over the Near East as well as 
in Egypt. It is, however, in ancient Egypt that we find the clearest 
antecedents of the alchemic ouroboros. There the cosmic serpent 
appears as Sito, who is shown with many coils or with tail in 
mouth. In the Book of the Dead, chapter lxxxvii, the sloughing 
motive is used, “I am Sito dilated with years, I die and am reborn 
daily. I am Sito dwelling in the farthest regions of the world. 

As Scribe of the Divine Book, the serpent has his link with 
Thoth-Hermes . 37 Amun also was identified with a serpent 
creator, and of the Ogdoad, the eight cosmic deities at Hermo- 
polis, four (female) are shown with snake-heads . 38 A hymn from 
the Coffin Texts shows that the creative word was uttered by the 
coiled serpent. “I bent right round myself. I was encircled in my 
coils, one who made a place for himself in the midst of the coils. 
His utterance was what came forth from his own mouth. At the 
end of time. The Book of the Dead says, the world will revert to its 
primary state, and Atum, or Re, will again become a serpent . 39 

In the inner coffin of Zepi the tail-eater is represented as symbol 
of the cosmic ocean surrounding the world; and in the innermost 
shrine of Tutankhamen a mummy-like figure is ringed above 
and below by two encircling serpents, those of sky and earth. 
We also find a few representations of Osiris bent right round, 
head to feet, encircling the Tuat or Underworld. A long snake 
surrounds the Sun god in his boat; the solar eye appears enclosed 
in oval (cosmic) waters; and the night-sun is depicted encircled 
by a five-headed snake. Osiris, transformed into a serpent, takes 
again the form of the primordial abyss. 

Relevant too are the ancient representations of the cosmos as 



44. The Consort of the Sky-goddess in his circular form 







































KLEOPATRA 


275 


274 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

Nut standing on the earth and bent right round, supporting 
herself on her hands: her elongated middle as the sky. Under her 
Geb lies flat. These two figures, female and male, enclose all 
things. To bring the point out, Geb is shown touching Nut’s 
hands with his toes and reaching out to touch her toes with his 
fingers. Once he appears as a snake. In another design, between 
him and Nut, is a snake biting its tail to repeat the pattern of 
enclosing earth-sky. 41 The twisted-back posture that Geb at 
times assumes is connected with the acrobatic dance, which 1 
have elsewhere shown to be a ritual dance of life and death. It is 
especially linked with death, and the circular twist-back of 
the body must have something of the sense of completion, of 
merged ends and beginnings, which emerges in the Ouroboros. 
Though this death-birth dance was very ancient, its significance 
was still strong in the minds of men who were interested in sym¬ 
bolism; for its imagery pervades the Dionjsiaka of Nonnos of 
Panopolis in the 5th century a.d. 42 

A small point: the star-scales of the cosmic serpent have their 
anticipation in what seem pholides, scales or beast-dapplings, on 
the body of Nut, of Hathor the sky-cow, or of the serpent. 
Ailian remarks, “I hear the Kings of Egypt wear speckled asps 
on their diadems.” 43 

Inevitably the serpent as the cosmic encircler, as Okeanos, at 
times was confused with, or merged into, the serpent as the enemy. 
In alchemic myth he was seen then as a guardian of the secret that 
had to be gained, the initiation-monster that had to be slain or 
outwitted. After the design of the dragon with three ears and 
four feet we read, “The dragon is the guardian of the temple. 
Sacrifice him, skin him, separate the flesh from the bones, and 
you will find what you seek.” 44 Then appears the man of brass 
who changes colour and becomes the man of silver, who in turn 
becomes the man of gold. The destruction of the serpent reminds 
us of the ancient Egyptian ritual for demolishing Apepi, who 
sought to swallow the sun. Only by continually breaking Apepi 
up could the course of the sun be kept safe and the daily rising 
assured. 45 

In a passage in Stephanos, as in later alchemy in general, the 
serpent in his annihilations seems to represent the moment of 
putrefaction. 

As for the field, know that it has many unprofitable farmers, and 
unless you cast these out you’ll get no profit from the field. There 


are all the Six Brothers [metals] attendant on klaudianos and the others 
together. Except for the 2 useful ones, they are not One. And all the 
leukargenos [not known elsewhere] is useless. For the field has a Serpent 
and he dries up the place with his breath, where also men grow 
enfeebled. And I saw him and the spotted scales of his body. The 
beginning of his tail was white as milk, but his belly and back were 
saffron-hued and his head was greenish-black. You should divide the 
field into 3, the 4 brothers one part and the great stone one part, or 
thus the ancients sought to do with the field, as I found out. For so 
does Theodoros the Magistrianos, and so Iakobos the lapidary 




Klaudianos occurs eleven times in the alchemic corpus; it has been 
interpreted as a copper-lead alloy perhaps plus some zinc equi¬ 
valent to aes Claudianum . 47 But this is dubious; it is ranked wit 
minerals rather than metals. The description of the colours of 
parts of the dragon are found in two anonymous fragments ot 
uncertain date. 48 In the poem by Theophrastos the serpent is both 
Ouroboros and the moment of whitening: 

A Dragon springs from that. For twenty days 
exposed in horse-dung, he’ll devour his tail 
till nothing is left of it. This Dragon s name 
is Ouroboros. He is white to see, 
his skin is spotted, and his form and shape 
are very strange. At birth he was produced 
out of the warm wet substance of mated things. 

The close embrace of male and female kind, 
a union clasped and working in the sea, 
brought forth this Dragon, as I said, a Monster 
blasting all earth with flames. With all his might 
and armour shown, he swims until he reaches 
a site within the currents of the Nile. 

His glistening skin and his engirdling bands 
are bright as gold and shine with points of light. 

Then sieze and slay with skilful art this Dragon 
there in the sea, and quickly wield your knife 
two-edged with hot and moist. And when you’ve cleft 
his carcass through, lift out the gall and take 
its blackened form that’s heavy with earthy bile. 

From it ascend great clouds of steaming mist, 
which, when they’ve risen dense enough, can bear 
the Dragon from the sea and lift him up 
to a warm station. The air’s moisture upholds 
his lightened shape and form. Be cautious then. 









277 


276 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Don’t burn his substance. Rather change its nature 
with quenching draughts. Pour out the mercury 
into a gaping urn; and when its stream 
of sacred fluid ceases flowing, wash 
the blackened dross of earth away with care. 

So, when you’ve brightened what the darkness hid, 
inside the Dragon’s entrails, you will bring 
an unspeakable mystery to light. For there, 
extremely bright and lucid, it will shine, 
and, tinged throughout with perfect white, will stand 
revealed with marvellous brilliancy—its blackness 
changed utterly to white. When cloud-sent water 
flows there, it cleanses each dark and earthy stain. 

Thus easily he frees himself by drinking 
nectar, though he’s quite dead; and all his wealth 
he outpours for mortals. Abundantly the earthborn 
are sustained in life when they have found at last 
the wonderful mystery, which, being fixed, 
will turn to silver, dazzling-bright in kind, 
a metal purified of earthly taint, 
so shining, clear, and marvellously white. 



45. Aion, relief in white marble (found in same Mithraeum as no. 43a); 
naked to waist, then wide trousers; extended arms hold torches; four 
wings from back, two pointing up, two down, with serpent round each. 
Circular burning altar with god’s breath, pneuma, connected 


KLEOPATRA 


Theophrastos described also the stage of yellowing as a killing 
of the dragon. Now liquid mercury can be dispensed wnth on y 
heat is needed. The knife of fire replaces the double-edged km 


Then seize again the Dragon changed to white 
(a change divinely achieved, as I have told, 
by means of whitening twice performed). Again 
kill him with a knife of fire, draw all his blood 
which gushes blazing-hot and red as flame 
glittering as it ignites. Then dip his skin 
into the blood that spurted from the wound 
deep in his belly (as you would dip in dye _ 
of murex-purple a whitened robe). You’ll gain 
a shining glory lustrous as the sun, 
of noble form and gladdening the heart 
of mortals who behold its excellence. 49 


The whitened metal is melted over a fire, preparatory to the 
addition of the Stone of powder of projection. Drawing off 
melted metal is here described as drawing out the blood of 
the dragon, and stirring in the powder as dipping the skin in 
blood. In the alchemic lexicon mercury is the Seed or thereof 
the Dragon as well as the Milk of a Black Cow, Water of Silver, 

Water of the Moon, River Water, Dew.-' 0 

It is perhaps not irrelevant to end this section with a reminder 
of the important part played by the Ouroboros-image in a great 

chemical discovery. Friedrich Kekule in 1865 ^"oformulate 
snake seizing hold of its own tail and was thus led to formulate 


IO 



























279 


13 


Womb Furnace and Vase 


W e have noted some examples of imagery from mating, gestation 
and birth in alchemy. Now we had better look at the extent to 
which such ideas penetrated ancient culture. The division of ores 
and metals, stones and precious stones into male and female was 
very ancient. The Mesopotamians had made it, using shape, 
colour and brilliance as criteria. An Assyrian text spoke of “the 
musa stone, male [in shape] and the copper stone, female [in 
shape]”. The male stones were thought to be those with a more 
vivid colour; the female ones were the paler. The ancient ono- 
mastica and recipes recognise male and female forms of various 
minerals or chemicals; the male here being in general the harder 
or darker modification or characterised by some sort of structure 
that suggested maleness . 1 Stones were thought to have their own 
force or magical powers; they were thought also to grow like 
organisms, though more slowly, and at times to produce their 
young. 

In Babylonian ritual texts we find a sexual division of salts and 
ores; and the general outlook survived into the medieval world 
in alchemic writings and in lapidaries . 2 Syrian alchemical works 
speak of female magnesium; the lapis judaicus was male or female . 3 
In dealing with stibnite (a common antimony sulphur, brittle 
with a metallic gloss like galena) Plinius writes, “In the same 
silvermines is found what we might best describe as petrified 
foam, white and shining, but not transparent. It is variously 
called stimmi, stibi, alabastrum and larbasis. There are two varieties, 
male and female, of which the female is considered the better. 
The male is coarser, rougher, less dense. Its surface is not broken 
and it contains more grit. The female on the other hand glistens 
and is easily broken, showing a lengthways cleavage instead of 
crumbling into small lumps.” Dioskorides makes the same dis¬ 
tinction. In ancient Egypt the Ebers papyrus mentions stimmi , 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 

and speaks of true and male stibnite no less than thirty-six times. 
Again Plinius tells of the male and female sandastros (possibly 
aventurine quartz): 

golden particles that shine like stars within the stone, always within 
its structure and never upon its surface. More, there is always a 
religious aspect declaring their affinity with the stars, because the 
embellishing starry particles generally conform in number and arrange¬ 
ment to the Pleiades and Hyades, They are therefore regarded by 
astrologers as caerimoniae [ritual objects]. 5 

Plinius further respects the belief of Theophrastos and Mucianus 
that certain stones had offspring. Theophrastos in On Stones states 
that some have the power “to act on other substances or to react 
to them and to fail so to react. For instance, some stones can be 
melted while others cannot be, some are combustible, while 
others are not, and so forth. More, in the very process of combus¬ 
tion or rather of exposure to fire, stones exhibit many differences. 
Again, some stones, the smaragdus for example, have the power of 
communicating their colour to water, and others that of completely 
petrifying objects placed in them. Some have a power of attraction, 
and others of testing gold and silver, like the so-called Herakleian 
and Lydian stones. But the greatest and most remarkable power, 
if it be true, is that possessed by the stones that bring forth other 
stones .” 6 Futher he makes such remarks as: “the stone known as 
sapphieros, which is black and does not differ greatly from the male 
kind of kyanos.” And dealing with the lyngourion (which was 
thought to be made of lynx-urine) he says that the urine of the 
male lynx produces a better (probably darker) stone than that of 
the female. Plinius tells us: 

The paeanis [Apollo Stone], otherwise known as gaeanis [earthstone] is 
said to become pregnant and give birth to another stone. It is therefore 
considered to relieve labour pains. Its birthplace is in Macedonia, near 
the Tomb of Teiresias, and it looks like ice. 7 

The name-link with Apollo and the place-link with Teiresias 
suggest also some mantic connection. 

We find the sexual differentiation of ores also in Africa, e.g. 
among the Kitara, who consider as male the hard black stones 
found on the surface, as female the soft red ones from down inside 
the mine—that is, deep inside mother earth. The mingling of the 
two kinds of stone is needed for fruitful fusion in metallurgy. 

















280 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

In ancient China, Yu the Great, the primeval smelter, could tell 
male from female metals; and he saw a parallel between his 
boilers and the cosmic forces of yang andj/a, which also had a 
sexual basis. 8 A common instance of sexual differentiation all over 
the world is provided in firemaking rites, where the hard male 
stick is rubbed or twirled into the softer female stick, which at 
last bursts into flame. Nonnos applies the distinction to fire¬ 
making stones: 

As the female stone is struck by the male stone, 
one stone on another brings flame to birth as crusht 
and beaten it loosens a shower of sparks from itself, 
so the heavenly fire is kindled in clouds and murk 
crusht and beaten, but from earthy smoke, 
thin by nature, the winds are brought forth. 

There’s another floating vapour drawn from the waters, 
which the sun, shining full upon them, milks out 
and draws up dewily through boiling tracks of air; 
this thickens and produces the cloudy veil ... 9 



and ends by coming down as rainwater. Here we have the two 
vapours of Aristotle, but Nonnos adds an alchemic touch with 
his idea of boiling air. The Dyaks, we may note, call a heavy fall 
of rain male. The Book of Enoch divides the cosmic waters: “The 
upper water will fill the role of man, the lower that of woman.” 
And the Zohar says that a well fed by a stream symbolises the 
union of man and woman, 10 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 281 

Trees and plants were more naturally given sexes. Nonnos has 
the male and female palm-trees pledging love. Artificial fertilisa¬ 
tion and the grafting of date and fig-trees had long been known in 
Mesopotamia; at least two paragraphs of Hammurabi’s Code 
deal with the practices. The latter were seen as a ritual. Maimo- 
mides says that Jews were forbidden to use lemons from grafted 
trees so as to prevent them from being drawn into orgiastic 
activities of the neighbouring peoples. Ibn Washya, whom he 
cites, speaks of graftings “contrary to nature” of lemon-bough on 
to laurel or olive, and declares that the graft only succeeds if it is 
done ritually and during certain conjunctions of the sun and 
moon. A very beautiful maiden must hold the bough while a 
man from behind has anal intercourse with her; and while he is 
thus enjoying her, the girl grafts the branch on the tree. Thus the 
human act of intercourse ensures the marriage of two different 
trees. 11 The Mesopotamians classified vegetable species as male 
and female, concerned especially with any likeness to the genitals 
and with the role of the plant in magical operations. Cypress and 
mandragora were male; the shrub nikibtu (liquid-amber orientalis) 
was male or female according to the form or the ritual role. 
Sanskrit terminology shows the close comparison of plant-forms 
with male and female genitals; and Caraka, in Kalpasthana, writes 
of the sexuality of plants. 12 The Jewish exegete, Bahya ben Asher 
(died 1340) stated that male and female distinctions were found, 
not only in plants, but in all vegetable species and also in minerals. 13 

The same general application of the principle can be found in 
ancient Greece and Rome, even if there was never any attempt at 
systematic development. The Perates said of the sea that it was 
male and female; and Horapollon tells us obscurely, “To symbolise 
Hephaistos they [the Egyptians] draw a beetle [scarab] and a 
vulture; and Athene, a vulture and a beetle. For the universe 
seems to them to be composed of the male and the female. And 
they draw a vulture in place of Athene; for only these gods among 
them are hermaphroditic.” 14 In fact there was a strong herma¬ 
phroditic element in early Egyptian religion, since there was a 
general idea of the creator-god as needing both sexes inside 
himself. We can find the same traces in Greek religion. Ploutarch 
cites for his day a confused version of Egyptian cosmogonic 
images: 

Apis, they say is the animated image of Osiris; and he is conceived 
when a generative light falls strongly from the Moon and touches a 










282 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

cow that is in heat; for which reason many of the decorations of Apis 
resemble the appearances of the Moon. Thus, he blackens over his 
shining parts with dusky robes, since it is on the new moon of the 
month Phamenoth that they hold the festival they call the Entry of 
Osiris into the Moon—which marks the beginning of spring. So thev 
place the power of Osiris in the Moon and say that Isis, as the cause of 
his birth, is also his wife. Therefore they call the Moon the Mother 
of Kronos and hold that she is of hermaphroditic nature, as she is filled 
and impregnated by the Sun, and again she emits and disseminates in 
the air generative principles; for she does not always express the 
mischief wrought by Typhon [Seth], but, being later conquered by the 
birth and bound by it, she all the same emerges again and fights her 
way through to Horos—this latter being the universe that surrounds 
the earth and us not wholly exempt either from generation or 
destruction. 15 

In Horapollon’s statement Hephaistos would stand for Ptah, and 
Athene for his consort Neith. On a Ptolemaic ring the ideogram 
of the scarab completes the writing of the name Ptah; and the 
Theban cosmogony of that period told how an Egg fell from the 
heavens and out of the Egg came Ptah-Tanen in the form of a 
serpent with scarab-head. 16 Seneca also reports that: 

The Egyptians recognise four elements, then they divide each into 
male and female. The male air is the wind, the female air is that which 
is hazy and stagnant. The water of the sea is male, all the other waters 
are female. In fire the part that burns and devours is male; the luminous 
and harmless part is female. Finally they call male earth the rocks and 
stones which own more strength, and the female earth that which 
lends itself to cultivation. 17 

The idea of a male-female deity was buried deep in early Greek 
thought, but it was pushed out by the strong sense of male 
dominance that appears in the Olympian system. It was reborn as 
a philosophic idea in the 5 th century, if we may judge by the lines 
of Aischylos that speak of Zeus as both the rain out of heaven and 
as the fecundated earth. Aristotle sees male and female as the 
mimemata , copies, of the formal and material principles at work in 
all things. 18 But it was with the growth of Stoic ideas and the 
reformulation of Pythagorean doctrines in the later 4th and the 
3rd centuries that the concept of a male-female principle seems to 
develop strongly. Iamblichos thus describes Pythagorean posi¬ 
tions that probably date from that period: 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 283 

The Pythagoreans call the Monas not only God but also Intelligence 

and Male-and-Female _In so far as it is, in a general way, the seed of 

all things, they define the Monad as both male and female, not only 
because they regard the Odd as male as being divisible with difficulty, 
the Even as female because easily divisible, and the Monad alone (or 
on its own) is both Odd and Even— but also because it is conceived 
as father and mother, possessing logos of matter and of form, of worker 
and thing worked-on. 

And indeed it is able to produce the Dyad because it is moved by a 
double motion; for it is easy for the worker to draw the material to 
himself or the material on its side to draw the worker. As for the speed, 
which, for what it is of itself, is able, once sown, to produce both 
females and males, it presents in an indivisible manner the nature of 
the two up to a certain point in its development. Only when it begins 
to become the fruit or animal of plant does it henceforth admit of 
separation and differentiation in one direction or the other; for it has 
passed from potentiality into actuality. On the other side, if there is 
in the Monad the possibility of all number, the Monad should be an 
intelligible number [i.e. a number purely thought or abstract] in the 
correct sense, for it does not yet manifest any actually realised number 
—all numbers being together in it in a purely conceptual manner. 

Besides, according to a certain way of defining things, they call 
matter also Universal Receptacle in so far as it is not only able to produce 
the Dyad, which is matter in the true sense, but it is also the receptacle 
of all the seminal logoi, if it is correct at least that it is the universal 
purveyor and dispenser. In the same way they call it Chaos, namely 
the Firstborn Chaos of Hesiod from which everything else comes as 
from the Monad. Finally the Monad is conceived as Confusion and 
Mixture, Absence of Light and Obscurity, since all that will later emerge 
is still in it without differentiation or distinction. 19 

Iamblichos here is largely paraphrasing the work of Nikomachos 
of Gerasa of the 2nd century a.d. 

In an Orphic hymn that goes back at least to the 2nd or early 
1 st century b.c. we meet the line: “Zeus becomes Male, immortal 
Zeus becomes Bride.” Valerius Soranus, cited by Varro, imitated 
the verse in Latin. There is perhaps Stoic influence here; for 
Diogenes of Babylon, about 240-152 b.c., wrote a Stoic type of 
allegory in which Zeus is represented as all things, all gods, and 
so both male and female. Chrysippos in the 3rd century b.c. 
had called Zeus Aither “both Father and Son”. 20 

There thus seem converging Pythagorean and Stoic ideas on 
the creative principle as male-female. Perhaps some eastern or 
Egyptian influences played a part in the development; but the 











284 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

ideas can be explained well enough as originating out of the Greek 
systems. They are of interest here as providing one of the philo¬ 
sophic bases from which the alchemic idea of the unitary process 
with its inner dialectic was built up . 21 The Chaldean Oracles see 
the Mother in the Father, and speak of the world-forming Ideas 
that “move about the terrible Wombs like bees”. These Wombs 
are in the Cosmic Body. The same sort of imagery however goes 
far back, for Diogenes Laertes tells us of Leukippos that the 
heavier atoms in their winnowing whirl form a primary spherical 
system. “This parts like a hymen, enclosing within it atoms of all 
kinds; and as these are whirled through the centre’s resistance, 
the enclosing hymen becomes thinner . ..” Hymen was used for 
a thin skin or enclosing caul, membrane; its link with sexual and 
generative functions appears in the fact of the marriage-god 
being called Hymen . 22 

The sexual classification of opposed forces or principles entered 
also into astrology. Ptolemaios says: 

Since there are two primary kinds of natures, male and female, and of 

the forces already mentioned that of the moist is especially female_ 

for as a general thing this element is present to a greater degree in all 
females, and the others rather in males—with good reason the opinion 
has been handed down to us that the Moon and Aphrodite are female, 
and that the Sun, Kronos, Zeus and Ares are male, and Hermes com¬ 
mon to both genders, inasmuch as he produces dry and moist alike. 

They state too the stars turn male or female according to their 
aspect to Sun. When they are morning stars and precede the Sun, they 
turn male, and female when they are evening stars and follow the sun. 
More, this happens also according to their positions with regard to 
the horizon; for when they are in positions from the orient to mid¬ 
heaven, or again from the Occident to the lower midheaven, they turn 
male because they are eastern, but in the other two quadrants, as western 
stars, they turn female. 

Likewise, since, of the two most obvious internals making up Time, 
the day is more male because of its heat and active force, and night more 
female because of its moisture and gift of rest, the tradition has come 
down that the Moon and Aphrodite are nocturnal, the Sun and Zeus 
diurnal, and Hermes common as before—diurnal when a morning 
star and nocturnal as an evening star . 23 

He adds that six of the zodiacal signs were taken as male or diurnal, 
six as female or nocturnal. 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 285 

The Hermetic writings carried on the theme. The Poimandrcs 
assigns to the Primal Man the Narcissus-myth: he saw his own 
reflection in the Water and wished to inhabit the sphere of nature. 
“Then Nature, having received into herself her beloved, embraced 
him whole, and they mated [mixed],for they were filled with love.” 
So man alone on earth is double, mortal and immortal. “Though 
in effect immortal and owning power over all things, he submits 
to the conditions of mortals, subject as he is to Fate. Lienee, 
though above the composite framework [of the spheres] he is 
also the slave of it, male-female as come from a male-female 
father, and exempt from sleep as come from a sleepless father, yet 
conquered [by love and sleep ].” 24 Note that the father-bias is 
now so strong in thought that even when speaking of an herma¬ 
phroditic being, the writer calls him a father. St Ephraim in his 
refutations of Mani writes: 

“Darkness, in effect,” he says, “has loved Light,” its contrary; and 
how should water love fire that absorbs it? or fire the water that puts 
it out? and how should fire love light? what use, I ask you, does it 
draw from it? For fire, indeed, loves fire and wind loves wind and 
water loves water. Or is it indeed that the nature of Darkness is male 
and that coming from the good, female? Otherwise what is the sense 
of all that: that they loved one another ? 25 

One of the Gnostic texts found at Chernoboskion thus explains 
the mystery of unity as two in one: 

If you would see the fulfilment of this mystery and the image of this 
miracle, consider the way in which bodily union is affected by the male 
with the woman. When the male attains to the supreme moment and 
the seed springs forth, at that moment the woman receives the strength 
of the male and the male receives the strength of the woman. ... It 
is because of this that the mystery of the bodily union is practised in 
secret so that the conjunction of natures should not be degraded 
through being seen by the multitude who would despise that work. 

Here is the sort of reason that the alchemist would give for his 
secrecy. The writer continues with an interesting development 
of the idea of the unity of above-below. “Do you know, Askle- 
pios, that Egypt is the image of heaven, or, better still, the dwel¬ 
ling of heaven and of all the powers that are in heaven . .. Our 
earth is the temple of the universe.” A magical papyrus cries, 
“Open the holy temple, the cosmos founded on the earth!” 


















WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 


286 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

And another expands the theme in a spell for opening doors by 
means of Aion’s name: 

Open, open, four regions of the world, for the Lord of the inhabited 
earth is coming out! Joy for the archangels of the dekans, the angels! 
For he himself, the Aion of the Aions, the unique, the one over all 
things, traverses the place invisible. Open, door, listen, bolt, split in 
two, lock, at the name Ala! Sent out. Earth, from yourself, for your 
master, all that you contain! For it is he himself, he who launches the 
storm, he who holds back the frost, the Ruler of fire. Open, it’s 
Acheboukrom who bids you. 27 



287 

y OU —you. Tat, Asklepios and Ammon—will be accounted as 
vanity. The physical universe will break down in disorder, in 
“atheism, dishonour, and unreason”, as the three seals of the 
world’s old age. Then a calamity will prelude the restoration of 
tilings, when the gods “will be re-established in a town that will 
lie on the borders of Egypt”. As usual in “prophecies”, what has 
happened in the past or is happening in the present is attributed 
to the future, so that it will seem a dead prophet has foreseen the 
whole thing. Note the suggestion that a counter-movement will 
arise, located in some southern centre. The gnostic author is 
filled with a pagan nationalism. 

With such a universal application of the sexual principle it 
will not surprise that even geometry comes into the scheme. 
Ploutarch says: 

Now the better and more divine nature is made up of Three: the 
Intelligible, Matter, and That Formed of these Two, which the Greeks 
denominate Cosmos. Plato called the Intelligible “Idea, Model, 
Father”, and Matter he terms “Mother, Nurse”, the seat and receptacle 
of generation; and that which results from the pair he is used to call 
“Issue, Birth”. We may conjecture that the Egyptians [revere] the 
most beautiful kind of Triangle [the right-angled], since they compare 
it with the nature of the cosmos and Plato seems to use this figure in 
his Republic when drawing up his marriage-scheme. 

The Triangle too has this property: 3 the right angle, 4 the base, 5 
the hypotenuse, being of equal value with the lines containing it. We 
must therefore compare the line forming the right angle to the male, 
then base to the female, the hypotenuse to the child of the two—the 


The Chernoboskion text goes on to draw the conclusion that as 
Egypt’ image of heaven, is now conquered and oppressed 
(by the Romans and the Christians), so the harmonious and stabi¬ 
lising relation of below-and-above is disturbed and the whole 
universe about to collapse. The day is coming, it says, when all 
divinity will leave Egypt for heaven because “the foreigners 
will invade Egypt and dominate her”. The Egyptians will be 
prevented from worship and will be tortured; the country will 
be filled with tombs, not temples, “and you, O river [Nile], a day 
will come when you will overflow with blood instead of water, 
and when the bodies of the dead will be piled higher than your 
banks.” Men will weep more for the living than for the dead, left 
with nothing but their language. Then, “all that I have taught 



48. Sky-goddess bent over to encircle, in double form, her back-bending 

circular husband 




















288 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

one as Osiris, Final Cause; the second, as Isis, the recipient; the third, 
as Horos, the result. As for 3, the first, it is uneven and perfect; 4, a 
square with a perfect side, is the product of 2; 5 pardy resembles the 
father, pardy the mother, being made up of 3 and 2. Also the All 
derives its name from 5 [panta,petite], and to reckon is called “counting 
by fives”, for 5 produces, when squared, the same number as that of 
the letters of the Egyptian alphabet and also the number of years that 
Apis lived. 28 

The logical result of the sexualisation of all forces and energies 
acting on one another is to see the cosmos as made up of male and 
female genitalia operating inside a womb which is thus fertilised, 
and to go on to the vision of the whole cosmos itself as a great 
womb enclosing all the lesser centres of fertilisation. The Sethians 
imagined the entire heaven and earth as a pregnant womb, with 
the naval in the middle. They said, “Let anyone examine the belly 
of any being soever when it is pregnant, and they will find there 
the imprint of heaven, earth, and all that’s situated immovably 
in the middle. The first principle to be born was a violent wind, 
come out of the water and causing all vegetation; the surging of 
stirred waters was similar to the rhythmic spasms of the womb 
to bring forth its offspring at the time of completion; the whistling 
wind was like the Serpent with his hisses. Thus generation began 
from the Serpent; when the Light and the Spirit from above met 
with the dark chaotic Matter, the Serpent (Wind out of the Waters 
of the Abyss) penetrated the latter and begot Man. As the Serpent 
was the only form known and loved by the impure Womb, the 
Logos of the Light had to take on that form in order to copulate 
with Matter. The Logos descended into the body of a Virgin 
and relieved the anguish prevailing in the Darkness. After enter¬ 
ing into the Womb, he purified himself and drank the Cup of 
Living Water that alone could redeem and transform the servile 
form of the body into a heavenly garment. 

We see how close such a doctrine was to that set out by 
Kleopatra, and yet how different. Here the horror and fear of 
earthly life dominates, and the elixir, the pharmakon of life, the 
cup of living water, is desired only as a means of escape into 
another sphere; with Kleopatra the pharmakon was wanted as 
the redemption of life here and now, the transformation of life 
here and now. And it was sought, not by magical and sacra¬ 
mental means, but by scientific procedures, by the actual handling 
and changing of matter, of material conditions. 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 289 

Now let us look at some alchemic formulations. We are told that 
the male rises east, the female sets west, and the work is accom¬ 
plished by their union. The Earth is often defined as the Virgin 
that has to be impregnated. “The Earth is virgin and bloody, 
igneous and charnel.” “Virgin the earth will be found in the vagina 
of the virgin.” Stephanos in his fourth lecture cried, “Fight 
copper! Fight silver! Mate male and female! The copper in his 
contest with silver is destroyed; the silver by her combination 
with copper is fixed .” 29 A passage in Ibn Umail attributes to Hermes 
an elaborate working-out of the analogy between the processes 
of gestation and those of transmuting: 

Hermes said. Know that the Secret of everything and'the Life of 
everything is Water, and this Water is susceptible of treatment from 
men and others, and in the Water is a great secret. This is the Water 
which becomes Ferment in Wheat; Wine in the Vine; Olive Oil in 
the Olive; Resin in the Turpentine-tree; Oil in the Sesame, the different 
kinds of Fruits in all the Trees. 

The beginning of the Child is from the Water, because when the 
seed of man falls into the womb of the woman, the womb is locked 
behind it for 7 days. The seed, when it falls into the womb, becomes a 
Subtle Water, and it remains in the womb for 7 days till it penetrates 
into all the limbs of the woman through its fluidity and subtleness. 
Then it passes over the flesh and becomes flesh, and over the bones and 
becomes bones, and over the hairs and nerves [or tendons] and becomes 
like them; and so on with all parts of the limbs. Then it grows hardened 
on the 8th day, and becomes like curds. Then on the 16th day it turns 
red, its colour like that of flesh. Then on the 24th day, it becomes 
manifest with its limbs distinguishable like hair. Then on 32nd day it 
takes shape and becomes a human being. 

He says in the Book: “Then we produced him by another creation.” 

On the 40th day the Soul [Breath] becomes manifest and apparent 
in it. Then from the 40th day blood begins to flow into the Embryo 
through its navel and becomes its food. Then the Soul, by reason of 
the blood, becomes visible and interlaces with the body and begins 
to grow little by little and becomes strong. Know that Water serves 
the Embryo in the Womb for the first three months. Then the Air 
serves it for the second three months. Then for the third three months 
Fire serves it. Fire makes it undergo coction and perfects it. When nine 
months are completed for it, the blood which used to give it sustenance 
through the navel, stops, and rises to the woman s breasts, becomes 
there like snow, and is turned there into food for it, after its emergence 
from the womb to this Middle World. 

All these are [descriptions of] the manipulation of their Stone; and 





















291 


290 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

in this way they manipulate it. Then understand this manipulation 
and these meanings. 

By the Womb is meant the interior of the Pot and those things that 
are in the Pot. Its mouth has been closed and shut up so that it [the 
product] may be collected in the mouth and will not find any exit into 
the air. Then it will be coagulated by itself as Khalid Ibn Yazid [born 
about a.d. 673] says, “When I saw the Water coagulating itself I 
became sure that the thing was right as has been described. Do not 
be in doubt, for your Lord is powerful. What you have spent on it and 
what has been lost will surely be restored to you.” 30 

We see in the last quotation that Womb and Alchemic Vessel 
were identified. In another passage Ibn Umail attributes to Hermes 
the imagery of union in marriage, followed by conception, gesta¬ 
tion and birth. “Know that the Marriage and Conception takes 
place by putrefaction in the lower part of the vessel. The Birth 
of this Child that will be born to them will be up in the Air, i.e. 
in the head of their vessel. The head of the vessel is the top of the 
Dome and the Dome is the Mnbiq.” zl We may recall also the 
Ouroboros surrounding the Womb in the magical gems. Similarly 
the Furnace was conceived as a womb from very early days. The 
earth was a woman, crevices and caves her vaginal orifices; 
stones grew in her body, and river-sources were the waters she 
let loose from it. The dead dwelt in her like some sort of shadowy 
embryos. “O you who are in the vagina of Neith, in the Hall of 
the Tribunal .” 32 

Plinius remarks that the galena mines in Spain were reborn “after 
a certain time”. If we look back to the earlyer days of Mesopo¬ 
tamian metallurgy a text from the Assyrian library of Assur- 
banipal shows that the processes were heavily hedged with ritual. 
A propitious month and day were selected; the furnace-area was 
consecrated; the uninitiated were prevented from coming in; 
the workmen were cleansed with incense and a beer-libation was 
offered up to the ores; sacrifices followed. A special wood, cut 
in the month of Ab, bark-stript and stored in a skin-envelope, 
was used for the fire. The term ku-bu is uncertain: it has been 
translated as divine embryos, a sort of demon, abortion, fetishes 
to protect the smelting. But it is used in the Creation Myth to 
designate the monstrous body of the slain Tiamat, from which the 
world is made and which is likened to a foetus. The ku-bu in the 
furnace-ceremony were thus probably the ores, considered as 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 

earth-embryos, but they may have been foetuses and used in 
some sacrificial rite . 33 

In Africa today among the Achewa of Nyasaland a sorcerer 
brings on a miscarriage so as to use the foetus for the success of 
fusion; he burns it with other medicines in a hole in the ground, 
and the furnace is then built over the hole . 34 The Atonga throw 
into the furnace a part of the placenta to ensure success in smelt¬ 
ing. The Baila sing during the work: “Kongwe [clitoris] and Malabo, 
the Black [vaginal lips] fill me with horror. I found Kongwe as I 
fanned the flames of fire. Kongwe fills me with horror. Pass from 
me, pass far, you with whom we have repeated intercourse, pass 
from me.” The Baikitara treat the anvil as a bride, bring it into 
the house as if in nuptial procession; the smith tells his wife he 
has brought a second wife in and sprinkles the anvil with water 
“so it may beget many children”. While the Baila build a furnace, 
a lad and girl go inside and crush beans (imitate the crackling of 
fire); later they must marry one another . 35 

Animal sacrifices are linked with metallurgical processes. 
Among smiths of Tanganyika medicines are put into the furnace; 
children sacrifice chickens before the mastersmith and sprinkle 
blood on the fire, ore, charcoal, a child goes into the furnace to 
put the medicines in a basin hollowed in the base, deposits there 
two hen-heads, and covers the whole with earth. The smithy is 
sanctified with the sacrifice of a cock, its blood is scattered over 
the stone anvil with the words, “May this forge not blemish my 
iron, may it bring me wealth and fortune .” 36 Again the smiths 
of Tanganyika made several kinds of hole in a kiln. The widest 
had the name of Mother; out of it at the end came the dross slag 
and roasted ore. The opposite hole was called the Father, and to it 
was attached one of the best bellows. The intermediate holes were 
children. The furnaces of the Nashona and Alunda were woman¬ 
shaped . 37 The Arabs called hard iron male and soft iron female. 
Weapons, as forged out of metals, were given sex, especially 
swords. The poet Ibn Errumi refers to the male cutting-edge and 
the female blade. Swords, as well as drums and bells, were given 
sex in China . 38 In European metallurgical terms the kiln where 
enamelling material was smelted was the matrix or womb. Mutter- 
schoss. We find similar imagery used for many other kinds of 
vessels used in forging, cooking and other processes using heat. 

Human sacrifice in Chinese metallurgy is suggested by the tale 
of Mo-ye and Kan-tsiang, man and wife. Kan-tsiang, a smith, 



























WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 


292 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

could not get the metal to fuse; his wife reminded him that a 
human sacrifice was needed. He told her that his master had 
brought the fusion about only by throwing himself and wife into 
the furnace. Mo-ye agreed to sacrifice herself if he did likewise, 
but they managed the matter by giving a part for the whole, hair- 
cuttings and nail-parings for their bodies. In another version 
the smith says that his dead master wedded a girl to the furnace- 
spirit; so Mo-ye threw herself in and the casting took place. In 
other accounts a smith consecrates cutlasses with the blood of his 
two sons, and oxen and horses are sacrificed for the production 
of eight swords . 39 We may recall the Kabeiric legend of the mur¬ 
dered brother in Greece and wonder if there were actual human 
sacrifices or ritual mimes of death-rebirth. 

Of particular interest are the customs of some tribes in Central 
India. The Asurs are a tribe of smiths who seem to have lived in 
the North Punjab till expelled by Aryan invaders and driven to 
the mountains of Chota Nagpur. They have been connected with 
the Asur and Asuras of the Vedic hymns, those enemies of the 
gods in endless conflicts. In one of their myths the supreme god, 
Singa-Bonga, is annoyed by the furnace-smoke, and sends his 
messengers the birds to have it stopped. The smiths refuse and 
mutilate the birds. Singa-Bonga descends and, unrecognised, 
he persuades the Asurs to enter the furnace, where they are 
burned. Their widows become spirits of nature. The Munda tell 
how at first men worked for Singa-Bonga in heaven. Then they 
saw their faces mirrored in water and they knew they were like 
like God and thus his equal. They refused to serve and were hurled 
down to earth, where they fell on a place with iron ore. There 
they built seven furnaces. Again the smoke displeased the god, 
whose bird-messengers were disregarded. He came down himself 
as a sick old man. The furnaces broke up and the smiths asked the 
old man’s advice. He said that they must make human sacrifices. 
No one was ready to die, so he offered himself. Going into the 
white-hot furnace, he stayed there for three days, then emerged 
with gold, silver and precious stones. So the smiths were keen 
to follow his example. They went in. Their wives, operating the 
bellows, were disturbed at their outcry, but the old man told them 
they were shouting as they divided the treasure. So the smiths 
were burned to ashes, and the wives were turned into spirits of 
hills and rocks. This last story is of special interest since it shows 
the idea of magical production of gold in the furnace . 40 


293 



49. The Cat killing the Serpent at the foot of the Heavenly Tree 

The notion of the furnace, the alembic or other such apparatus as 
wombs has many ritual links. Take the breast-shaped vases used 
by Maria in her kerotakis operations to catch the divine water. 
It was certainly no accident that these were called mastariaP 1 
Later in Zosimos’ vision we shall meet bowl-shaped altars. The 
breast-shaped vase had naturally a fertility-aspect and we find it 
linked with Isis, who was represented at times, says Macrobius, 
with many breasts or else suckling Harpokrates. In the proces¬ 
sional fresco that ran along the three sides of the precinct of the 
Iseum at Pompeii, a young man carried a rounded situla , which 
symbolises the goddess’s breast. Such situlae have an important 
ritual significance in Mesopotamia and Egypt and are connected 
with rebirth as well as fertility. The young man at Pompeii does 
not seem a priest; he is probably a mystes, an initiate like Lucius in 
Apuleius’ Metamorphoses . 42 

To return to alchemic vessels: Stephanos writes, “True is a 
certain moist vapour and the dry vapour. The moist is sublimed 
by th zphanoi which have nipples. But the dry vapour [is distilled] 
by the pot and bronze cover, as is the white vapour from cinna¬ 
bar.” Phanos usually means “torch, lamp, lantern”. Olympiodoros 
uses it as equivalent to cup: “a cup or phanos of glass lying on the 
top.” But Stephanos’ description clearly sees it as a breast-vessel; 
vapours collect in it as milk in the breast, and come out through 
the nipple. It seems, however, to have also had a serpent-form. 
Zosimos remarks, “It is possible to fix mercury in the phanos and 
similar apparatus with, as it were, a serpent-shaped base”— 





























WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 


294 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

presumably an enclosing serpent like the Ouroboros. The alembic, 
in which the Stone was born, was modelled on the womb, and 
the retort or vessel-with-a-nose represented the placenta. Mating 
took place in the lower part of the alembic, while the child, the 
resulting spirit or pneuma , was born in the upper part. 

Observe closely the fire in the art and the birth of the spirit that does 
not remain fixed. Then also mistakes become previous irritadons, the 
female coldness, the slow-to-move, the miscarriage. Therefore also the 
womb, lustful and virgin and the place of the man, all desirous when¬ 
ever it may be made quick, is that which is the aphrodisiac symbol of 
joy and love, which is laughter. So also the melters of gold, understand¬ 
ing what they say, say “They laughed” . . . (Stephanos). 

In the last sentence he is trying to explain, it seems, a passage 
from the Diplosis of Eugenios-. “Burnt copper 3 parts, gold 1 part: 
melt and throw in arsenic, calcine and you’ll find it brittle, the 

triturate with vinegar 6 days in sun, then after drying melt silver_ 

and it laughed. Even if some very early copyist has made 
some mistake here over his text, the meaning is in accord with 
the message of Kleopatra: that both the metallic body and the 
alchemist suffer and feel joy in the processes. Not only do the 
substances mate in the alembic, the alchemist also at the same 
time mates with nature. The word phanos, we may add, with its 
strong suggestion of brightness, suggests a Breast of Luminous 
Milk, a thing of beauty and delight. 

It is a short step from the mystery-cup of the divine breast to 
the baptismal bowl, such as the Hermetic Krater or the Cup of 
Living Water in Sethean theology. A Syriac poem by Narsai on 
Baptism (5th century) gives us an alchemic view of the bowl: 

The Supreme Artisan has produced a New Art. 

Without Composition, Man re-makes Man. 

An unprecedented invention found by divine symbolism: 

Man begets without Seed in the Womb of Water 

Even if water begets reptiles and birds, 

we have never heard before of it getting humans . . , 43 

The reference to the artisan with a new art which does not use 
composition shows clearly that Narsai has the alchemists in mind. 
Men are changed in the bowl as metals are changed in the alembic. 

It is again only a short step, though a crucial one, to imagine 
the person reborn through the magical or regenerative fluid as 


295 

somehow metamorphosed into the vessel that holds the immor¬ 
talising fluid. The body sloughs its mortality and becomes the 
divine vase itself. After death the Valentinians thought they could 
render themselves invisible to the powers encountered on the 
way up to the light. To the powers of the Demiurge they declared, 
“I am a Precious Vessel worthier than the female creature who 
made you. Your Mother knows not her origin,but I know myself.” 
That is, they had become the vessels of regeneration and thus 
could reject the earthly mother. They had been reborn in the pot 
like the substances of Ibn Umail’s alchemic account. 

Above all the martyrising fire could thus transmute the body 
born of an earthly mother into a vessel that was wholly the 
father’s work. We saw this idea expressed in the account of 
Polykarp’s death. 44 Here we may add further material bearing 
on this point. Theodoros of Mopsuesta in the 4th century wrote 
on the theme of baptism: “It becomes you then to think that you 
fall into the water as into an oven [furnace] and that you are 
renewed and reformed so as to be changed into a perfect nature 
and to leave your old mortality and completely receive an immortal 
and indestructible nature.” 45 Behind this imagery lies the tale 
of the men in the oven in III Daniel , which was much used as a 
parable of baptism and resurrection. The version made by Theodo- 
tion told how the three men “fell into the midst of the burning 
oven”. This chapter was one of the liturgic readings in the course 
of the solemn vigil of Easter in the basilica of Constantine at 
Jerusalem while the arrival of those to be baptised was awaited. 46 

In the Brihadaranjaka Upanishad we read: “And as a goldsmith 
takes a piece of gold and gives it another form, new and more 
beautiful, in the same way this I, after rejecting its body and chas¬ 
ing out all ignorance, makes it into a new and more beautiful 
form, whether it resembles the Ancestors or the Ganharvas or 
the Devas or Prajapati or the Barhman or other beings.” 47 The 
Christians used similar language of the glorified body. Kyrillos of 
Jerusalem in his 18th Catechism of Baptism says that the body will 
survive in eternal life, but transformed, “just as iron in contact 
with fire becomes fire”. The bodies of the just will shine. 48 

The Christian writers on baptism pondered much on Daniel 
(xii, 3): “They that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the 
firmament,” and on I Corinthians (iii, 15), which they misunder¬ 
stood because of their obsession with the cleansing and trans¬ 
muting fire: “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer 


















296 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

loss; but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” The actual 
reference was to ordeal. 49 John of Lykopolis (about 394) wrote: 

Exactly as iron, put in the fire—and the fire penetrated it and is in¬ 
corporated with it—is united with the fire and takes its likeness and 
its colour, and does not show itself under its old aspect, but becomes 
like fire, since the iron has been absorbed by the fire and the fire by the 
iron, and they have become one, in the same way when Christ’s love 
has entered into the soul, that love which is the living fire burning the 
straw of sin to deliver up the first, the soul that was old becomes new, 
it was dead and it becomes living; and the likeness of nature is changed 
to the likeness of God. 50 

The idiom was already well worn. Methodios of Olympos (about 
311) compared Man, God’s masterpiece, to a fine statue made by 
a skilled artist. Destroyed by an evil-minded person, it can be 
recast and remade. It is the same with Man deformed by the 
Devil. “The recasting of this statue is here the death and dis¬ 
solution of the body; the renewal and restoration of matter is here 
the resurrection. Further, restoration is easier work than the 
original creation. Look still at the artist. It is not so hard to give a 
bronze vessel the same form after having cast it as to make some¬ 
thing new from raw matter. That demands more work. The metal 
must first be burned, then cast: that is, purification and then the 
creation of an artistic form.” Augustine took up the symbolism 
in his Enchiridion. However, though many early Fathers com¬ 
pared the creative activity of God to that of a skilled worker, 
they usually chose the potter. 51 

In later times, however, the theme of the rejuvenating smith 
was common in folktales, popular plays, and the like. A typical 
example is the following from Middle English. A smith in Egypt 
is rich and proud, an unequalled master. To punish his pride, 
Jesus Christ comes and asks him to forge an iron rod that can 
show the way to a blind man. The smith wants to know how that 
is possible. Christ replies that he can do it, as well as giving youth 
to the old. The smith gets his old, blind and lame mother-in-law, 
and at Christ’s orders puts her on the fire till she is incandescent 
without feeling pain. Christ then places her on the anvil and 
forges her without breaking a bone till she is as she was at thirty 
years. He then refuses to hand on his lore to the insistent smith. 
The latter, however, tries his hand on an old, blind, paralysed 
woman and smashes her up. Scared, he runs off and prays; Christ 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 


297 

in pity blesses the woman, who revives. Christ promises the man 
that he will be the mastersmith but must not burn people. In 
variants, Christ, wandering with St Peter, takes off a horse s feet; 
the smith imitates and fails. 52 

The motive of the apprentice or aspirant who tries to imitate 
some magical acts and fails is very old. Philostratos in his Ufe of 
Apollonios has the story of the apprentice who tries to use the 
bucket of the master-magician to raise water and cannot stop it. 
Ailian tells a tale of the temple of Asklepios at Epidauros with its 
miraculous cures. A woman wanted to be cured of tapeworm; 
a servitor cut off her head and removed the worm, but could not 
put the head back; the god, summoned, duly did the miracle. 
This tale was a piece of Epidaurian propaganda to outdo a tale 
from Troizen. Circumstantial details were added and we hear of 
the woman, Aristagora, lying all day with severed head. 53 

Behind all the ideas and images of a forged immortal body of 
metal or gold there lies the ancient idea of gods whose incorrup¬ 
tible bodies were made of such substances. We noted such ideas 
at the outset of this book. They went back to the days of the 
Pyramid texts. The god is indistinguishable from his deathless 
image. A New-Kingdom address to Thoth (in the form of a 
squatting ape) declares: 

Ape with white hair and pleasant form, with friendly nature, beloved 
of all men. He is of sehret- stone, he, even Thoth, that he may illumine 
the earth with his beauty. That which is upon his head [moondisk] is 
of red jasper and his penis of quartz. His love leaps [?] on his eyebrows 
and he opens his mouth to bestow life. 54 

Ptah blesses Ramses II in the Abu Simnel temple, saying, “I 
have wrought your limbs of electron, your bones of copper, 
your organs of iron.” And a magic papyrus has a spell entitled. 
“What the eight great gods of primordial origin say when they 
render homage to the god who is among them, whose bones are 
silver, whose flesh is gold, and whose hair is a true stone of azure. 
In the ritual of embalming: 

In a long speech the deceased is addressed and told the liquid [immers¬ 
ing his backbone] is “secret”, and that it is an emanation of the gods 
Shu and Seb, and that the resin of Phoenicia and the bitumen of 
Byblos will make the burial perfect in the underworld, and give him 
his legs, and facilitate his movements, and sanctify his steps in the Hall 
of Seb. Next gold, silver, lapis-lazuli, and turquoise are brought to the 














2 9 8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

deceased and crystal to lighten his face, and carnelian to strengthen his 
steps; these form amulets which will secure for him a free passage in 
the underworld. Meanwhile the backbone is kept in oil, and the face of 
the deceased is turned towards the heavens; and next the golding of 
the nails of the fingers and toes begins. When this has been done, and 
portions of the fingers have been wrapped in linen made at Sals’, the 
following address is made to the deceased: 

“O Osiris, you receive your nails of gold, your fingers of gold, and 
your thumb of smu [or usasm\ metal; the liquid of Ra enters into you as 
well as into the divine members of Osiris, and you journey on your 
legs to the immortal abode. You carried your hands to the house of 
eternity, you are made perfect in gold, you shine brightly in smu metal 
and your fingers shine in the dwelling of Osiris, in the sanctuary of 
Horus himself. O Osiris, the gold of the mountains comes to you; it 
is a holy talisman of the gods in their abodes, and it lightens your face 
in the lower heaven. You breathe in gold, you appear in smu metal, 
and the dwellers in Re-stau receive you; those who are in the funeral 
chest rejoice because you have transformed yourself into a hawk of 
gold by means of your amulets of the City of Gold.” 55 



50. Serpent enfolds ithyphallic Osiris 


There is yet one more point about the urgent desire that was felt 
to transform the flesh. The male wanted to become a statue of 
gold, a thing of purified metal, a vase of fire-hardened clay, no 
longer subject to the accidents and corruptions of the flesh. The 
female wanted all that too, but she, the “weaker vessel”, started 
with a disadvantage and had to become male in the process, so 


WOMB FURNACE AND VASE 299 

utter was the contempt for the mother-body. There was a belief 
that all female elements must become male in order to unite with 
the angels and enter the Fullness, the Tleroma. Thus the gnostic 
Theodotos believed. And in The Gospel of St Thomas , used by some 
Gnostics (such as the Naasenes), the last logion runs: 

Simon Peter says to them: Let Mary go from our midst, for women 
are not worthy of Life. Jesus says: See, I will draw her so as to make 
her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. 
For every woman who has become male will enter the kingdom of 
heaven. 56 

The rejection of the mother, the female, appears in the saying of 
Jesus: “Woman, what have I to do with you?” Tertullian con¬ 
demns women: “You are the gateway of the Devil, you are the 
unsealer of the forbidden tree, you are the first rebel against the 
divine law, you are she who persuaded him whom the Devil was 
not strong enough to attack. So easily did you shatter the image 
of God in man.” And so her only hope was to cease being female. 
On judgment Day “women will have the same angelic sub¬ 
stance, the same sex as men”. Jerome taunted women with trying 
to make themselves like men as the result of such condemnations. 
They “change their garb and put on men’s dress, they cut their 
hair and lift up their chins in shameless fashion”. St Gregory of 
Nazianzan coins the paradoxical phrase: “to be male [andrigesthai] 
in female matters”. 57 

Accompanying this wish to abolish femaleness was a wish to 
abolish sex itself. In The Gospel according to the Egyptians-. 

When Salome inquired when the things about which she asked would 
be known, the Lord said: When you have trampled on the garments 
of shame and when the two become one and the male with the female 
is neither male nor female. 

The Gospel of Philip declared, “Christ came to re-establish what was 
thus [divided] in the beginning and to reunite the two. Those who 
died because they were in separation he will restore to life by 
reuniting them.” The Second Epistle of Clement™ “When the two 
shall be one, the outside like the inside, the male with the female 
neither male nor female.” The logia of Jesus repeated, “When you 
make the two become one, you will become the Son of Man, and 
if you say. Mountain remove yourself, it will remove itself. 
And there were close parallels in the New Testament. Galatians 





















300 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPR 

(iii, 28) stated. There is neither male nor female, for you are all 
one in Christ Jesus. 59 It followed that in the beginning there had 
been no sex. 60 Simon Magos called the primordial spirit male- 
female. The Naasenes saw the celestial Man, Adamas, as arseno- 
thelys; and every man still held inside himself the power of be¬ 
coming a celestial hermaphrodite like the Logos. The Epistle of 
Eugnostos the Blessed saw the Son as the first generative Father, 
also called the Adam of Light; he mated with himself, with his 
Sophia, and produced a great male-female light “which is by its 
male name the Saviour, creator of all things, and by its female 
name Sophia, the all-mother, also called Pistis. From these two 
are born six other pairs of spiritual hermaphrodites, who produce 
72, then 360 other entities.” 61 

The Mother is thus smuggled into the cosmogony as the female 
aspect of himself with whom the Son mates; but she is tolerated 
only in this disguised and inferior form. As the deities with whom 
union was sought were always conceived as male—in the Chris¬ 
tian formulation, triply male—the notion of male and female being 
absorbed into unity was felt emotionally as a transcendence of 
femaleness and thus an elimination of sex. Hence the extreme 
hostility to women that keeps breaking through the abstractions. 
Women thus had a double urgency in the desire to rise above 
the flesh; and perhaps it was natural that a woman, Maria, led 
the way in devising the Pot or Transformative Womb by which 
Matter might, it was hoped, be changed and lifted on to a higher 
level —that of the stable purity of gold. 



14 

Agathodaimon 


We now come to what is perhaps the most problematic figure 
among all these problematic figures, the founders of alchemy: 
Agathodaimon. The name is plain enough in meaning: the Good 
Spirit; and we have seen that Spirit already turning up in a num¬ 
ber of connections, though not with any clear character. There 
was a geographer Agathodaimon, apparently of the 2nd century 
a.d., but there is no reason to think this man an alchemist. 
Under Agathodaimon’s name we have an alchemic commentary 
addressed to Osiris and dealing with The Oracle of Orpheus, 
another of the 2nd-century apocrypha, which was held in high 
esteem by the Gnostics. There he speaks of the art of whitening 
or yellowing metals as well as giving various recipes. 1 We find 
elsewhere an aphorism of his: “After the refinement of copper 
and its blackening and later whitening, there will be the solid 
yellowing.” 2 He is also linked with Hermes in the Riddle of the 
Stone. 

Olympiodoros says, “Some say he is an ancient, one of the old 
philosophers of Egypt, others, a mystic angel or good daimon, 
Egypt’s Protector. Others call him the Heaven, as his symbol is 
the image of the world. Indeed the Egyptian hieroglyphs, wanting 
to denote the world on obelisks in sacred characters, depict there 
the serpent Ouroboros.” 3 We may surmise that Agathodaimon 
was connected with Ouroboros because of his own serpent-form. 
Certain Gnostics, who adored the serpent as his emblem, kept 
domestic snakes called agathodaimones, house-guardians. The 
Agathodaimonites, indeed, have been taken for alchemists. 4 

We shall soon have more to say of Agathodaimon as a snake. 
For the moment let us look at him as a person linked with 
Hermes. A Discourse of Hermes to Tat, On the Common Intellect 
(Nous), states: 
















AGATHODAIMON 


302 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Is not the adulterer bad, the murderer bad, and so on with all the others ? 
The man who has the logos [word], my child, does not suffer through 
having committed adultery, but he suffers as if he had; not through 
having killed, but as if he had killed. For if it’s not possible to escape 
the condition of change any more than that of birth, he who possesses 
nous has the power of getting away from evil. 

That’s why, my child, I have always heard Agathodaimon say—and 
if he had written and published it, he would have rendered a great 
service to the human race: for he alone, my child, because as the 
firstborn god he had truly contemplated all the assemblage of beings, 
would utter divine words—I have then heard him say one day that 
“All is One, and, above all, the Intelligible Beings; that we five by the 
power, by the energy, and by the Aion; and that the nous of the latter, 
which is also its psyche, is good.” 6 

Psyche here means the I, perhaps the Double or Ka. A magic 
papyrus says: “You are the soul of the Daimon of Osiris, [the 
soul] which revels in every place.” And Ploutarch calls Apis the 
image, eidolon, of Osiris’ soul. 6 “All is One” we have met as a 
basic alchemical axiom, which perhaps goes back to Herakleitos: 

Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge 
that all things are one.” 7 And it has been suggested that a gather¬ 
ing of Herakleitan “oracles” served as the basis for an Egyptian 
collection of Agathodaimon’s logia. 8 Kyrillos of Alexandreia knew 
of a logos of Agathodaimon to Osiris. 9 

We have three passages from Kyrillos in which the name 
appears. In the first, indeed, it is only used in an address to 
Hermes by the servitor of an Egyptian sanctuary, who wants to 
know what the Logos is. Hermes tells him that it is “generative 
and demiurgic”. In the Hermetic treatise. The Key, we are told 
that the universal nous is the Agathos Daimon. 10 With the second 
passage from Kyrillos, however, we seem to touch a more distinct 
character, whether deity or man. Hermes is talking to Asklepios. 

Then Osiris asked, “Well, very great Agathos Daimon, how did the 
earth appear in its entirety?” 

The great Agathos Daimon replied, “According to a system and a 
drying-out, as I have said: the mass of waters received, from that 
instant on, the command to recoil upon themselves and the earth 
appeared in its entirety muddy and shaken with tremblings. For the 
rest the sun spread out its light and did not cease burning and drying 
out things thoroughly, and the earth was solidly fixed in the midst of 
the waters, surrounded by water on all sides.” 11 


3°3 

In the third passage Agathodaimon is again instructing on the 
origin of things: 

And Osiris said, “O thrice-great Agathos Daimon, by what cause has 
risen this great Sun that we see?” 

The great Agathos Daimon replied, “You want me, Osiris, to set 
out the sun’s generation—by what cause it has risen? It has risen by the 
providence of the Master of all things.” 12 

Again the discourse turns to the creative logos. All these passages 
do not, however, give the shadowy figure any clear features. He 
appears as a vague doublet of Hermes, except perhaps that his 
main concern is with the creative or cosmogonic process, which 
is suitable enough for an alchemist. And this point brings us to 
Kamephis, who seems identified with him, and to a passage cited 
from the Lore Kosmou earlier in another relation, that of the 
Black Earth. 13 Isis tells Horos: 

You hear here the secret doctrine that my ancestor Kamephis learned of 
Hermes the Memorialist, who relates all the facts; then [I learned them] 
from Kamephis, our ancestor of all, when he honoured me with the 
gift of the Perfect Black; and now you from me. 

This Kamephis, Kmephis or Kmeph, is in effect an ancient god 
under his various Greek forms. The name should correspond 
with the Egyptian Kamutef, which denotes the God Father-of- 
his-Mother: that is, the first unbegotten begetter, autogennetos, 
who is identified with Amum-Re-Kamutef or with ithyphallic 
Min . Kamutef is thus a form of the ancient hermaphroditic 
demiurge whom we discussed in the last chapter. 14 

His only appearance in a Greek text seems in Damaskios, in a 
passage that deals with Three ICamepheis, a demiurgic trinity. 15 
The first god came from the original pair of arched, principles: 
the water and sand of Egypt. The second came from this first; 
the third from the second. The triad constitutes the intelligible 
world in its totality. Damaskios says that such is the account given 
by Asklepiades, apparently the Egyptian whom the Souda 
describes as having a deep knowledge of his country’s theology 
and who wrote hymns to his native gods. He is said to have 
written a book on the concord between the different religions; 
and Suetonius gives him the name of Mendes — so that presum¬ 
ably he came from the same town as Bolos. 16 The third Kamephis, 
we are told, was the Sun and also the Intelligible Intellect. 17 We see 























304 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

in the Kamepheis one of the forms of the Neoplatonic trini ty In 
the Kore Kosmou the name seems chosen so as to make Isis’ revela¬ 
tion go infinitely back in time—just as the pseudo-Manethos, 
cited by Synkellos, links his gnosis with books in the sanctuaries 
of temples that date back to the second Hermes, son of Agatho- 
daimon and grandson of the first Hermes. In the Kore Kosmou, 
indeed, the author as a result has produced an illogicality: 
Kamephis is the most ancient of all, yet he gets the gnosis from 
Hermes. Efforts have been made to reorganise the text so as to 
make him the first owner of the lore which he hands on to Hermes, 
who hands it on to Isis; but they are probably unnecessary, 18 
Kamephis-Kmeph is further somehow entangled with Khnum- 
Kneph, so that Kamephis merges with the ram-headed creator- 
god of Elephantine and the First Cataract, who was worshipped 
in many sanctuaries. Khnum made men and women on his potter’s- 
wheel; “Maker of things which are, creator of the things which 
shall be, the source of things which are, father of fathers, mother 
of mothers” he was called in the New Kingdom, and thus appears 
as another hermaphroditic demiurge. 19 The line of descent here, 
of Kamephis from Khnum, is not all at clear and has been denied. 20 
However, the link of Kneph and Agathodaimon is attested by 
Philon of Byblos: “The Phoinikians call it [the Living Snake] 
the Agathos Daimon while the Egyptians name it Kneph and 
attach to it the head of a falcon.” The same Falcon-headed Snake 
is identified with Kneph in the pseudo-Persian source found in 
Philon and John Lydos. 21 

The magical gems do much to fill out the picture. Here indeed 
we do find the god Khnum linked with a serpent: On one side 
we see a bearded serpent coiled on the right; on the reverse is an 
inscription Chnoubis Nabis Bienout —a corruption of a common 
formula, Chnoubis Naabis Biennouth , which is normally met in 
connection with the bearded serpent. Chnoubis is a late variant 
of Khnum. 22 Naabis seems linked with the Egyptian root, nhp, 
which denotes the potter’s-wheel or else an hypostasis of the god 
existing independently or under the form Khnum-Nph . 23 Biennouth 
corresponds to an Egyptian term meaning the soul-of-the-god. 
This name suits Khnum in particular, since the Egyptian for Ram 
was homophonous with the word for the Soul. The Egyptians 
liked this sort of serious pun, which was felt to reveal hidden 
connections; here they built up theological subtleties on the 


AGATHODAIMON 3°5 

similarity of sound, making the Divine Ram the Soul of the Gods 
and associating the four forms he assumed in his four sanctuaries 
with the four great elementary gods. 24 Thus we find that each 
term of the inscription on the gem links with Khnum. 

But how did the serpent thus come to merge with a god who 
was supremely ram-headed? Here we seem to find a fusion of 
Kneph, normally shown with a lion’s head, and Agathodaimon, 
who is bearded. How it occurred will become clearer as we go on. 

Agathodaimon as a snake was naturally associated with the 
Earth. This relation is brought out by another intaglio where we 
see him coiled up with a pschent-aown on his head and the word, 
Gaia (Earth). There may be a reference to his creative forces 
here; the pschent recalls royal power—Manethos calls the third 
ruler of the 1st dynasty Agathodaimon. 25 On a third intaglio an 
Ouroboros encircles the womb, which is closed with a five¬ 
toothed key and surmounted by Isis, Chnoubis the lion-headed 
snake, a dog-headed mummy and Nephthys. Here Chnoubis is 
clearly the creator-god set between two goddesses associated in 
the ceremonies that attend birth. Inside the field is inscribed 
aei 0 e ouo, and round the Ouroboros, soroormer-hergar . . . riourin, 
in which we see fragments of a formula often linked with amulets 
protecting the womb. 26 What matters for us here is the evident 
connection of Khnum-Kneph-Chnoubis. The gems show us the 
welter of often strongly-felt associations going on busily at the 





5 2. Chnoumis gems 




























}o6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

popular level in the Graeco-Roman world. We may add that in a 
magical papyrus we meet both the Ouroboros and Chnouphi; 
and that in the Greek alchemic Lexikon Cnouphion is given as a 
synonym of the alembic. 27 

Further aspects of Chnoubis can be seen in other magical 
gems. As we noted above, he is one of the gods that guard the 
womb (which was regarded rather as a thing or force in itself, 
liable to move about and cause much damage). He also helped’ 
the stomach. A talisman against stomach-trouble is doubtless to 
be seen in a grey-blue piece of chalcedony, shaped like a peach- 
stone or persea-seed, on which is cut the Chnoubis-snake with 
nimbus and seven rays —pesse pesse on the other side (digest! 
digest! the word means “ripen or soften by means of heat”). 

Galen, writing of the medicinal powers of certain minerals 
states: 

The testimony of some authorities attributes to certain stones a 
peculiar quality which is actually possessed by green jasper. Worn as 
amulet, it benefits the stomach and oesophagus. Some also set it in a 
ring and engrave on it the radiate serpent, just as King Nechepso 
prescribed in his 14th Book. I myself have made a satisfactory use of 
this stone. I made a necklace of small stones of that variety and huno- 
lt from my neck at just such a length that the stones touched the posi¬ 
tion of the cardiac orifice. They seemed just as beneficial even though 
they lacked the design that Nechepso prescribed. 28 

Galen thought the stone radiated some virtue, but deprecated 
the value of the magical inscription or design. The snake-design 
he speaks of was no doubt the typical Chnoubis, a thick-bodied, 
lion-headed snake, but we do find some rayed snakes wholly 
serpentine in form. 1 

The rays are of importance, bringing out the astrologic con¬ 
nections. In the sacred book of Hermes to Asklepios, the first 
Dekan of the Lion is Chnoumis, who has a lion-head set on up- 
rearing coil's, and who rules over all affections of the heart. But 
the third Dekan of the Crab has the name Chnouphis, with a 
design, however, of a bust resting on a base and owning two 
female faces turned in opposite directions. 2 * In Hephaistion of 
Thebes, Chnoumis is the third Dekan of the Crab and is helpful 
as a phylakterion of the stomach. Charkhnoumis is the first Dekan 
of the Lion but nothing is said of his appearance or powers. 
His name may appear in forms Cholkhnoubis and Chrachnounis 


AGATHODAIMON 307 

found on a few amulets of this type. 30 In the work About Stones 
by Sokrates and Dionysios we read: 

Engrave on it [some sort of onyx] a serpent coiled with the upper part 
or head of a lion, with rays. Worn thus it prevents pain in the stomach; 
you will easily digest every kind of food. 31 

Generally the rays number seven or twelve; at times they are six 
or else twelve in six pairs; occasionally there are seven pairs. 
When there are seven, the seven vowels are sometimes set at the 
end of the rays or between; we also find the letters of Chnoubis 
thus treated. Several times the serpent is on or just above a little 
altar or base. Variations of the serpent-form include a human 
trunk and arms under the lion-head; the man-section wears a 
cuirass, with a short-sleeved tunic under it, which falls below 
as a kilt; the lower part of the body consists of large snake-coils 
either side. The head has six rays; the right hand holds two short 
daggers pointed upwards, the left has two stalks of grain. (The 
stalks are common in representations of Agathodaimon, thrust 
into the coils of the snake-tail.) In one instance the body is nude 
save for the kilt, and the hands hold a sword and a palm-leaf; in 
another, there are two swords, with the words Chnoubis naabis 
biennouth. (The use of military costume, imitating the statues of 
Roman emperors, is not uncommon for Egyptian gods, e.g. 
Anoubis. And we meet terracottas of Isis which give her human 
arms and a tunic from which a snake-coil emerges.) In other 
variants a human-headed snake twines round five small ovoids or 
a snake with lion-head has several eggs around or between his 
coils. These snakes must be guarding the eggs. Yet another variant 
has the snake with rayed human head and body apparently 
swathed as a mummy. On the reverse of one Chnoubis design is 
the inscription, “Keep Proklos’ stomach healthy.” Another 
prays, “Place the womb of so-and-so in its proper place, O Circle 
of the Sun.” 32 

One ordinary Chnoubis stone has on the reverse, as well as 
Nabis Biennouth , “Water for thirst. Bread for hunger. Fire for 
cold.” The phrases are probably liturgical. For instance, at the 
time of Akhenaten, we find: 

“You are the father of the motherless, the husband of the 
widow. Pleasant it is, the uttering of your name. It is like the 
taste of life. It is like the taste of bread to the child, a loincloth to 
the naked.” An Ethiopian hymn, used on Palm Sunday, declared: 





















AGATHODAIMON 


308 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

“He is bread to the hungry, spring-water to the thirsty.” And we 
may compare a prayer to Thoth in the New Kingdom: 

You great dom-palm, sixty cubits high, on which are fruits. Stones are 
in the fruits and water in the stones. You who bring water to a place far 
away, come, deliver me, the silent one. Thoth, you sweet well for one 
who thirsts in the wilderness. It is closed to him that finds words, it is 
open to him who keeps silence. 33 



53. The Sungod of Night surrounded by the Five-headed Serpent of 
Many Faces; on his head the Beetle of Khepri, the rising sun of the 

next day 

The formula on the Chnoubis stone reminds us of the alchemist 
aim of driving out hunger. 

We may now try to draw together some of these scattered 
pieces of evidence. Agathodaimon, given a snake-form, becomes a 
demiurge as well as protector; in his Hermetic role he is linked 
or merged with Kamephis or Kneph (Kamutef); and one literary 
source calls Kneph a falcon-headed snake. Then comes the more 
difficult merging with the demiurgic ram-headed Khnum, who 
becomes linked with Kneph and Ivmeph. A magical lion-headed 
snake Chnoubis is in turn associated with Khnum. That these link¬ 
ings went on at the popular level revealed by the magical texts and 
gems is supported by the fact that it is in a magical papyrus we 
find Khnum as a solar god called Kmeph with the form of a huge 
serpent. Taking over from the Theban demiurge, he has shed his 
ram-head in favour of the lion, a strongly solar beast. 34 

Certainly sound-similarities played a large part in these identi¬ 
fications ; but there were also astral influences. Snake-forms were 
common enough in Egypt, though there seems also a Greek 
element in snake-Agathodaimon; the radiate lion-head is solar 
and strongly Egyptian. Astrological names and images played a 


3°9 

considerable part in the series of associations we are examining, 
though the process was never at any point simple and direct. 
Chnoubis of the amulets had doubtless no original relation to 
Khnum. He was merely one of the Dekan-gods who presided, 
each over a third of a zodiacal sign: over io° of the circle. 35 The 
Dekans determined the night-hours by the passage of certain 
stars or constellations through a number of fixed points. The 
system was taken over by Greek astronomers under the influence 
of the work attributed to Nechepso and was set out in two treatises, 
one under the name of Hermes Trismegistos, the other under 
that of Hephaistion of Thebes. Chnoumis, we noted, was a 
Dekan-god of the Crab; an astrologic text, which gives him this 
name, also describes an amulet of the Chnoubis-type for persons 
whose birthday falls under the Chnoumis-dekan. Such a persons 
were particularly liable to digestive troubles. Chnoumis as a 
name is almost certainly linked with Khnum; but it seems un¬ 
likely that the Chnoubis-amulets were at first devised under 
astrological influences. Perhaps the name Chnoumis was attached 
to a Dekan after the amulets were being turned out, and represents 
an effort to bring Khnum into the Kamephis-Agathodaimon 
sphere. In any event it is notable that a sign, very common on 
Chnoubis-amulets, is also linked with Chnoumis-Knm of the 
Dekan. On Egyptian monuments it appears as an upright snake 
crossed by three horizontal snakes. On amulets it is shown as 
three similar wavy lines crossing an upright straight line. 36 (We 
seem here also to touch a version of the Imakh -caduceus which we 
discussed.) 

However we analyse the dekan-gods, Chnoubis and Chnoumis, 
and the ways in which they came into our complex, they certainly 
ended as part of the Agathodaimon-system. We get a further 
insight into the syncretic tendencies at work by looking at two 
more texts. Iamblichos, dealing with Hermes’ account of the 
universe, tells us of “the most ancient principles of things”— 
the self-born Father dwelling in the solitude of his own unity— 
which are set above the ethereal and igneous gods and the celestial 
gods. Of the igneous gods Hermes has left a hundred works, of 
the etherial another hundred, and of the celestial a thousand. 
Iamblichos goes on: 

In another order he sets the god Kneph at the head of the celestial gods 
and calls him the intelligence that thinks itself and turns towards 
itself other thoughts. He puts before him an indivisible being that he 

II 




















JIO ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

names also the firstborn and Eikton; in him is the first intelligence and 
the first intelligible, which is worshipped by silence alone. Besides 
there are other chiefs of the demiurgy of visible beings; for the 
intelligence is demiurgic, guardian of truth and wisdom; descending 
into generation and bringing into the light the hidden power of secret 
discourses, he is called Amon in the Egyptian tongue; accomplishing 
all things without falsehood and artistically, truthfully, he is called 
phta—the Greeks change Phta into Hephaistos, attaching him only to 
his art; as creator of the good, he is called Osiris and takes according 
to his various powers different names. 

Kneph-Khnum here appears as supreme demiurge, taking over 
some of Ptah’s qualities as creator by means of thought and be¬ 
coming a celestial god, perhaps through Chnoumis of the Dekans. 
The Egyptian basis of the name Kneph means “he who accom¬ 
plishes his time . Chnoumis is the snake-creator playing a part in 
the Theban cosmogony; Porphyrios knows him as a demiurge 
connected with the cosmogony of the Primeval Egg, but gives 
him a human shape. Indeed there is a point where the entangle¬ 
ment of identifications in the late period becomes confused beyond 
sorting out. There is a further link with Ialdabaoth Sack, Gnostic 
demiurge, whose name sometimes alternates with that of 
Chnoumis in astrological texts. 37 We see how this sort of identi¬ 
fication went on pullulating in the popular imagination from a 
Prayer to the Sun: 

I invoke you, greatest of the gods, eternal lord, ruler of the world, you 
who are on the world and under the world, powerful ruler of the sea, 
who glitter at the moment of day, who rise up for the whole world in 
the east and who go to rest in the west. Come, you who rise coming 
out of the four winds, gracious Agathodaimon, who have taken for 
festival hall the entire sky. 

I invoke your sacred names, great and hidden, that you rejoice in 
hearing. Under your beams earth has blossomed, the plants have borne 
fruit by grace of your smile, at your command the living have begotten 
other living beings. Give glory, honour, favour, success, and magic 
force to this stone, for which today I carry out the consecration [or, 
this phylactery I consecrate] against NN. I invoke you who are great in 
heaven, Sabaoth, Adonai, great God, glittering Helios who shine on all 
the earth. 

You are the great Serpent who walks at the head of all the gods, you 
hold the first place in Egypt [the first nome of Upper Egypt, that of 
Elephantine, Khnum’s seat], which is also the last of inhabited land 
[at the First Cataract in the far south]. You have begotten yourself in 


AGATHODAIMON 3 1 T 

the Ocean, Pso'i, god of gods, you are he who manifests himself daily, 
who sleeps in the northwest of the heavens and who rises in the south¬ 
east . . . 

Yes, Lord Kmeph. I call upon earth and heaven, fight and darkness, 
and the great god who has created everything, Sarousis, you, Agatho¬ 
daimon who aid me, grant me complete success in this operation by 
means of this ring and this stone. 

(While you operate, say: There is only One Zeus Sarapis.) 38 

Dragon-snake and Lion, a magical papyrus tells us, are alike 
“physical principles of fire”. In the sun-prayer, Kmeph, Agatho¬ 
daimon, Helios, Psoi (Psois) are all directly identified with one 
another. Psois deserves a glance, for he helps us to understand 
how Agathodaimon became integrated in the Egyptian system. 
He was one of a pair of old deities, having as consort Ther- 
mouthis (Ernutet)—a name traditionally given to Pharaoh’s 
daughter who found Moses. As the deification of good luck (Sat 
in Egyptian), he was naturally merged with Agathodaimon. As 
Psai was the Egyptian name for the city Ptolemais, we may deduce 
that he was the divine snake or guardian there. Ptolemaios I had 
founded that city; and if Psois was known in it, we may guess 
that he was already prominent at Alexandreia and perhaps already 
identified with Agathodaimon. Certainly the latter was established 
in the capital by the 3rd century b.c. and his female counterpart, 
Agathe Tyche, was most likely equated with Thermouthis. At 



54. Gem with Chnoumis above an altar and inscription, on reverse “I 
ever I am the Good Spirit.” 


















312 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

some time, probably late in Hellenistic times, the pair of good- 
luck deities were identified further with Sarapis and Isis (who had 
her serpent-form and was also a Tyche, a Fortune). While Psois 
was rather swallowed in the new equations, Thermouthis survived 
better in separate form—as indeed also Isis grew in importance 
at the expense of Sarapis. The females of the protecting house- 
snakes were called Thermoutheis, and were thus Isis’ ministers 
in punishing sinners. The two snakes, by the way, that Ptolemaios, 
a sober historian, says guided Alexander the Great to the Oracle 
of Siwa and back across the desert, were certainly meant as a 
divine sign and may be taken to represent Psois and Thermouthis. 
If this is so, it looks as if Psois was already identified with Sarapis 
and stood for the Agathodaimon of the new political dispensa¬ 
tion. 39 

We also find Thoth brought in. A haematite gem shows a 
deity with neck and head of ibis and crowned snake; on the 
reverse the lad palindrome, Chnoubis, and the words pesse pesse, 
showing that amulet was for stomach-troubles. The odd figure 
may be taken as a fusion of Hermes-Thoth and Agathodaimon, 
as found also in the inscription Thant Psae on an amulet reverse’ 
with Thoth s ibis on the other side, holding a caduceus under its 
wing and bearing on its head a tiny figure of Harpokrates. 
Thaui Psae gives us a dialectal form of Kopt words meaning 
Thoth Fortune of Thoth” (Agathodaimon). 40 A chrysolite 
shows a crowned snake, with Isis standing in a shrine on the 
obverse; the snake might thus be Agathe Tyche or Thermouthis. 41 
A figure on a haematite amulet again shows a fusion of Chnoubis 
and Thoth; it has two heads, one of an ibis with atef- crown, the 
other of a bearded serpent with pschent. The design is encircled 
with an inscription arponchnouphi bri[nta\tenophi ermithouth\ and 
it has been shown that the second term is applied to Choumis- 
Choubis especially in a solar aspect. 42 The first may contain the 
Egyptian Har [Horos] and Chnoubis; the third, Hermes-Thoth. In 
any event PLrmithouth is an anagram of Phermouthi, the vocative 
of Thermouthis. 

Chnoubis is further a protector against the Evil Eye; and among 
the epithets most usually applied to him are gigantorhektes and 
barophita. The first we find as gigantophontes , gigantopantorhektes and 
gigantopniktorhektes : he is called giant-killer, giant-annihilator, 
giant-render, and apparently giant-throttler. Barophita seems to 
mean serpent-crusher. 43 


AGATHODAIMON 3 I 3 

We could follow up the variants and the shades of significance 
in the amulets much further; but enough has been said to bring 
out the main points and to show how important was this Chnoub- 
Kneph-Khnum figure in the world of magic. Exactly how the 
fusions came about, it is hard to say; but in part through astrology, 
in part through the sycretisms of magic, the serpent-creator of 
Theban cosmogony was merged with creator Khnum; Agatho¬ 
daimon with his head of a bearded serpent was drawn in; 
Chnoumis as first Dekan of the Lion gained himself a lion-head— 
Hermes the astrologer described him, “He has a leonine face 
emitting solar rays; his whole body is that of a serpent rolled in 
spirals, turned upwards.” But probably the general tendency 
towards solar identifications has helped to bring in the lion- 
image. We saw how snake and lion were now both solar creatures, 
and the sun-prayer showed how Agathodaimon, Kmeph and 
Helios were connected. All these developments were of the Graeco- 
Roman period, indeed largely the product of the Empire; and 
the identifications cannot be refuted because they cannot be 
found to exist in earlier Egyptian religion. What is obscure is the 
precise step taken to bring this and that figure together; the 
sequences are lost in the confusion of popular fantasies. 

This investigation has not been irrelevant, since it has shown us 
further the workings of thought and emotion in the shadowy 
underworld of culture in which alchemy was being nourished; 
but it has led us away from, rather than towards, any historical 
figure who can be given a role in the early history of alchemy. 
There is one area, however, in which Agathodaimon does have 
some claim to represent such a figure, but that is far from Egypt, 
among the Sabians of Harran in northern Mesopotamia. We have 
already briefly noticed them, and now we must pay them some 
closer attention. 

Harran, a Syrian town, lay on the big western bend of the 
Upper Euphrates and survived till the ioth century a.d. as the 
last outpost of Sumerian, Hittite and Babylonian cultures. In 
the process it went through many changes. About 528 b.c. it was 
incorporated in the empire of the Medes and Persians; and it 
has been suggested that in the following Achaimenid period, 
when Egypt also became a part of that empire, a widespread 
fusion of cultures went on, which laid the basis of Iranian ideas 
in Egypt. A further intermingling of cultures went on in the 


















AGATHODAIMON 


314 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 



5 5. Osiris enthroned on the mound with snakes 


post-Alexander period, when presumably Graeco-Egyptian ideas 
penetrated Syria and the Harran region, bringing the names 
Hermes and Agathodaimon. Arab sources show that Harran was 
connected closely with India (Sind), the Syrian towns ofDamaskos, 
Tyre, and Hieropolis, Heliopolis in Egypt, and Balkh (where the 
fire-temple of the Barmacides seems preceded by a temple of the 
Babylonian Moongod Sin, and yet earlier by one of the Sumerian 
Nannar of Ur). As a metallurgical centre it was linked with the 
mines of Asia Minor, Kurdistan, Persia. Successive Mesopota¬ 
mian dynasties seem to have used it as an important market for 
gold, silver, copper, tin, as well as mineral substances like sulphur, 
arsenic sulphides, borax; with the later part of the 2nd millen¬ 
nium b.c. iron and lead must have been added to the list. A men¬ 
tion of Kharsini in connection with the temple of Hermes 
suggests some amount of trade with China, but how far back that 
went we have no idea. In any event Harran was well-situated as 
a place concentrating metallurgical lores, techniques, and myths 
from a wide area, and playing a key-part in their development. 
What we know of its cult-systems emphasises this point. 44 

The temple of Kronos had an image of the god in Lead; the 
associated colour was Black, the geometrical structure of the temple 
was hexagonal, and the number of steps to the image’s throne 
was Nine. The corresponding systems for the other six deities 
was as follows: Zeus, Tin, Green, Triangular, Eight; Ares, Iron, 
Red, Oblong, Seven; the Sun, Gold (hung with Pearls), Square, 
Six; Aphrodite, Copper, Blue, Triangle (with one side longer 


3U 

than the other two). Five; Hermes, an Alloy of all the metals 
(with Mercury in the hollow interior). Brown, Hexagonal (with 
square interior), Four (circular); the Moon, Silver, White, Penta¬ 
gonal, Three. At the Wednesday service in the temple of Hermes a 
Brown Youth, who was a good scribe, was killed and quartered; 
the quarters were separately burned and the ashes thrown in the 
image’s face. Hermes, with his inner spirit composed of Mercury, 
was thus the principal god in many ways—though in early times 
the city-deity was the Moon, Sin. But we must remember that all 
the evidence is late and does not prove such elaborations at an 
early date. For instance the account of the number of steps is 
dated about a.d. 1300. What to make of the sacrifice of the Brown 
Youth is not clear, except that the story must link with alchemic 
notions of death-rebirth centred on mercury. 

All the evidence we have of Harran alchemy is also Arab. There 
is a translation, Treatise of Warning, ascribed to the Sabian prophet 
Agathodaimon; and Al-Dimashqui stated in the 13th century 
that the Sabians considered he had derived his lore from Enoch, 
who was also Idris or Hermes Trismegistos. The following is a 
summary of the doctrine: 

The Heavenly Art depends on One Thing. To gain the re¬ 
quired knowledge from the sayings of Hermes in his books, the 
student should stick to the single illuminating sentence: This 
Stone by which the Work is performed is a Stone and not a Stone. 
It is not an ordinary stone, for it melts and comes out of the essen¬ 
tial nature of the stones: a Clear Water and a Pure Spirit. After 
being mixed with whatever is necessary, and heated, it coagulates 

into the Etesian Stone, through which alone tincturing is possible. 

Copper, correctly treated, becomes Silver, and, after more treat¬ 
ments (addition of liquids, trituration, repeated coction), Gold. 
Instructions are given about mixing the Stone with the Mercury 
(Spirit) of the Burnt Body of Ashes according to the prescribed 
weights of the art and exposing the moistened mixture to the 
Sun. Care was needed to keep the Mercury in moist union with 
the Body till the latter became soft, fusible, divided into its 
Elements; for, if the moisture lessens, the Tincture will be imper¬ 
fect. As fire was the worst enemy of the operation’s success, 
much attention had to be paid to the degree of heat reached, to 
prevent the Moisture diminishing to such a degree that the Body 
would not afterwards accept the Spirit. 

The disciples then ask from what is the Stone got, what are its 




















}l 6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

properties and how the art is to be carried out by experiment. 
Agathodaimon tells them that the art was given by God to Shith 
ibn Adam, who was ordered to keep his knowledge secret. The 
Stone, the Light of the Earth, serves as a guide to all created 
things and makes hidden things manifest; it is most resistant to 
lire, which only makes it purer and more excellent. “Earth does 
not cause it to decay or undergo corruption, on account of what 
the creator has combined in it.” In the operation various colours 
appear. Red, Yellow, White, Black and Green. Its taste is sweet 
like blood, its smell pleasant; it originates from the earth, where 
there is temperate heat, proper combination, and the dust is 
loose and moist. It is the densest of all things. The first operation 
is very difficult and can be carried out only after many days of 
coction, trituration and repeated heating following the addition 
of moisture. Much patience is needed in the first state of Washing, 
Whitening and Rusting. The order of colour-changes is from 
Whiteness to Redness: any Blackness at first present in the in¬ 
organic matter being eliminated and the matter capable of being 
endowed with spirit (of being transmuted) thus whitened. Ad¬ 
mixture is firstly between the Water and the Earth, and the Body 
and the Spirit; and secondly, between Water and Water. Combina¬ 
tion is then effected by means of Fire, so as to unite Natures into 
a Single Thing. When the Body has been reduced to fine particles 
like ashes, “Blackness will most rapidly change into Whiteness 
by which the Noble Gift and most auspicious Boon will be 
attained.” Next comes information about the Receptacle to be 



56. Silver from Samara with encircling griffin (Hermitage) 


AGATHODAIMON 317 

used, the heat of the fire (like that of the brooding hen), and the 
all-important separation of the Spirit by solution “so that the 
grossness of nature will remain .. . and its essential-nature will 
have disappeared”. 

The agent for bringing about this required subtility in the 
material, which makes Tincturing possible, is the Fiery Poison 
extracted from the Natures by means of Fire. We are told how to 
treat Copper with this Poison till the Single Gum (or product) 
white as snow is obtained—called by the sages the White. This is 
put in a retort, and heated, first on hot ashes from burnt horse- 
dung, till the Blackness that again appears ceases to appear, and 
then on a fire of horse-dung. The product is transferred to 
another instrument, where similar process of heating, distillation, 
and drenching are carried out, till no Blackness at all survives in 
the Nature of the substance. Then the Royal Colour appears, 
the Purple, “from which comes the Complete Tincture which 
eternity and the lapse of time cannot efface. Neither Water nor 
Fire causes it to perish, nor will it decay or change as long as the 
world abides.” One mithqal (24 carats) of it suffice to transmute 
an unlimited quantity of whatever is to be dealt with. 

The treatise ends with further warnings against the Enmity of 
Fire, the need for subjecting substances to “decay” by many 
days’ exposure to the heat of moist horse-dung, which reduces 
the compound to fine soft particles. Also the need to remove the 
Spirit by solution. Patience is again advised for the work and for 
penetrating the enigmatic language of the instruction. Disciples 
must be of good understanding, loving wisdom, studying the 
books of the sages and, as well, ready to devote themselves to 
prolonged meditation. 45 

There are many links between these formulations and other 
works we have examined. Thus the opening aphorism about the 
Stone is accompanied by the statement that the One Thing is 
found “among both rich and poor, and from it no spot in the 
market is free.” (The aphorism itself is found in the Arab version 
of one of Zosimos’ treatises to Eusebios.) Maria, as cited by Ibn 
Umail, spoke of coction of Soul and Spirit into a single thing like 
Marble; the Arab version of the Zosimos treatise refers to the 
Etesian Stone as like marble in its extreme whiteness; Agatho¬ 
daimon compares it to Snow—apparently a local touch, since 
Harran had snow-capped mountains on both north and west. 
Zosimos in The Keys of the Art explained that the Stone was 

















AGATHODAIMON 


}l8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

called Etesian, Annual, since it was reborn every year: showing 
that the rebirth-imagery of alchemy was linked with the earth- 
revival as well as the death-rebirth of initiation-ritual. We saw 
Agathodaimon in a Greek MS referring to the purification of 
the minerals as producing something “like acacia-gum or drops”. 
We found both Hermes and Kleopatra insistent on gentle heat; 
like Agathodaimon they looked to the Sun rather than to violent 
Flame. Exposure to sun and dew appears in the recipes of Demo- 
kritos and of the Stockholm papyrus. The Single Gum of Agatho¬ 
daimon seems argyrokolla , comparable with the chrysokolla of 
Hermes. Though a visible product resulted from the operation, 
holla (gum) may be taken as expressing the operative power 
inside matter, through which the constituent opposites. Body and 
Spirit, are linked in the White or Red Elixir. (Atomic valency has 
been suggested as a parallel in modern chemistry.) 46 

The list of five colours given by Agathodaimon are the primary 
ones of the Chinese, who take Yellow as the colour of the Centre. 47 
However, when he comes to describing the operations of change, 
he uses the Greek system. According to Hermes in The Tittle Key, 
the ancients meant by Purple and Purple Stone the Rust of 
Copper. Another name seems to have been komaris. Not that 
these names imply that verdigris was the elixir; they apply to any 
preparations of any substance thought to be of use in bringing 
the elixir about. By the action of Fire the Spirit (Mercury) of the 
materials in use was set free, until at last, after various other 
operations (especially solution and further heating), the Spirit 
was reunited with separately purified Matter into an elixir, which 
to some extent owned the creative and transforming energy of 
the All or the One. 48 

Two commentaries, those of Jamasp and Asfidus, seem to 
belong to the Harrar tradition. Jamasp’s treatise is ostensibly 
dedicated to Ardashir, the first Sassanian king (a.d. 226-41). Such 
evidence is not, however, trustworthy, as authors or later scribes 
were liable to insert a dedication that seemed to prove the anti¬ 
quity of a work. Still, the commentaries are of interest in helping 
to establish the fact of a definite Harrar school of alchemy, which 
looked on Hermes and Agathodaimon as its founders. Axioms of 
Hermes on which the school based itself were: Whatever you 
sow, you will reap; make the bodies bodiless and the bodiless 
bodies; cultivate gold in the white silvery soil and drench it with 
the water of life. The first two of the axioms we know well from 


3 J 9 

our Greek manuscripts. The two commentators cite Demokritos 
as saying: “My Master Ostanes used to submit the Nature to 
coction from outside, then to triturate it, and [finally] to make the 
Poison penetrate into its inside.” 49 

What is distinctive about the Harran school is its stress on 
the sole use of minerals and metals in the operations, together 
with a dualistic theory, which suggests a strong Iranian basis. The 
minerals, created by the One out of the One, were made up of two 
opposites. Matter and Spirit. Further the metal used in the prepara¬ 
tion of Gold and Silver is Copper. 50 Though Lead appears in the 
Planetary Table of the Metals, it is absent from the alchemic 
writings. On the other hand. Lead is basic in the alchemy of the 
Greek operators. In order to support the unique nature of the 
Harran school it has been asserted that only there does copper 
play a serious part, and that where Zosimos mentions it, he is 
using the term as a synonym for the Stone (because the red hues 
of copper show up at some stage in the processes) or as part of 
the name molybdo-chalkos, lead-copper. Such a statement, however, 
indeed goes too far. It is true that it is usually hard to tell if an 
alchemist is using any term in its literal or its symbolic sense; but if 
we were to apply our doubts about literal meanings in a rigid way, 
we could ask what it was the Harran alchemists really meant by 
Copper. This, however, is carrying scepticism too far. We often 
meet copper in Greek formulations: Stephanos thus writes: 

So there is no need to be afraid of burning and reducing to ashes all 
these bodies. For they come again to a certain power and virtue and re¬ 
birth, since they own a nature imitative of the whole universe and of 
the elements themselves, whence also the rebirth, a communion with a 
certain spirit, as of things coming into existence by a material spirit. So 
copper, like a man, has both soul and spirit. 

For these melted and metallic bodies, when reduced to ashes, are 
joined to the fire and again made spirits; for the fire gives freely its 
spirit to them. As they manifestly take it from the air that makes all 
things, just as it also makes men and all things, thence is given to them a 
vital spirit and a soul. So also the fusible bodies, reduced to ashes with 
the metallic bodies, recover their soul by a certain method, as if 
becoming akin to the fire. And likewise all the elements have creations, 
destructions, changes, and restorations from one to another. 

So also copper, after it has been many times burnt and restored with 
oil of roses and expelled, becomes without stain, better than gold. But 
it is necessary to allow of this being threefold, for the untinged, the 
being-tinged, and the tinged. 






















320 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

The last sentence there presents the triadic formula in new terms. 
Again Stephanos says: 

This copper, suffering all things and being further roasted, becomes the 
Etesian Stone in colour, Etesian as something binding. After being- 
roasted, it is quenched in the divine moisture, which they call the 
divine water, the dissolved oil, and it becomes the thickness of wine 
and there remains for 41 days in the gentle heat of a vapour-tight 
vessel, the matter being destroyed completes at length the apparent 

mystery, holy and sought-for of the water of sulphur. And it is the 
otone that does these things. 

The Etesian or Annual Stone we have already noted; as a sub¬ 
stance, apart from a symbol, it seems something pyritic; cuprous 
oxide, aes ustum, may be meant here for the copper—that oxide 
being of colour like the reddish-purple of the iron oxide got from 

“Tb* P 7 ntes ; r ALRazi “ his Shawahid cites Hermes as saying that 
e Great Tincture is formed from our burnt copper and our 
strong water. From other than these nothing can go forward. 

use them together until all the copper is melted and mixes with 
the water to form the Great Stone.” 51 

However at Harran we do seem to meet a local school firmly 
based on copper and its preparations; and it may be conjectured 
that the lore of Harran goes back to a period when copper was the 
chief metal in use, i.e., roughly 4500 to 1200 b.c. or a little later 
when the Iron Age comes definitely in. (Iron rust is mentioned in 

• th0Ugh not in the treatise of Agathodaimon 

itself. The substances will be formed in the First Operation 
just as Iron Rust is formed.” The reference to iron there, it will 
be noted, has no primary importance and could be intrusive.) 

This concentration on copper, to the exclusion of iron and lead 
is certainly striking and does no doubt point to an ancient tradi¬ 
tion; but to carry alchemic theory, on this evidence alone, back 
to the 2nd millennium b.c. is going too far. No doubt proto¬ 
alchemy proper could not have developed without the conver¬ 
gence of a pumber of factors, of which Greek philosophy was 
one. At most we can suggest that in Harrar some very old metal- 
urgical ideas and images, carried on by local craft-fraternities 
coalesced during the Hellenistic and Roman periods with methods 
and formulations from Egypt and Syria to produce the specific 
school of Agathodaimon. It still remains odd that the Greek- 
Egyptian names of Agathodaimon and Hermes were used to 



AGATHODAIMON 321 

denote the founders of Harrar alchemy. Attempts have been 
made to find the name Hermes or something like it as that of an 
ancient earth-god among the Kilikians and Hittites —Arm a 
among the latter, with the Greek Her max related. 52 The origin 
of the Greek god Hermes is indeed obscure, but one line of inquiry 
has been to link him with herma , hermax, rock, stone, ballast— 
with the heaps or cairns of stone piled by roadsides or at holy 
places. At least we can certainly say that he was often worshipped 
under the form of a stone and that the her ms or hermai which bear 



5 7. Serpent-enclosed ithyphallic Osiris 


his name were not statues at all, but square pillars, tailing in a 
little at the lower end, crowned with a human head, and owning 
a penis stuck half-way up the front. There is nothing unlikely 
then in his having a primitive stone-god as at least one im¬ 
portant aspect of his origins, or in this god having a wide early 
provenance in Asia Minor. But it is a long jump from the Ur- 
Hermes to the learned alchemist of Harran. Flermes may indeed 
have had early metallurgical connections; for he was credited 
with inventing fire and was identified with ICasmilos (Kadmilos), 
one of the Kabeiroi. However, in the case of Harran there is no 
evidence at all for the persistance of a cult of Hermes-Arma, 
connected with copper-smelting craftsmen, who was merged with 
Hermes Trismegistos during the period when Syria and Mesopo¬ 
tamia were included in the Greek Seleukid empire (312 to 65 b.c.). 
At most we can say that during that period, or early in the Roman 
Empire, the prestige of Hermes and Agathodaimon were suffi¬ 
ciently high in the sphere of the occult sciences to be taken over at 
Harran to lend importance to the local lores, and that in the process 
many ideas from the Egypt of Demokritos-Bolos and Hermes 
Trismegistos were drawn on—but not strongly enough to drive 
out the copper-basis of the local lores and practices. What is 
most impressive in the Harran alchemy of Agathodaimon is its 






















322 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

insistence on keeping to metals alone for its operations. That fact 
does strongly suggest a close link of the ideas with metallurgical 
craft-fraternities who, in their mystery-revelations, had many 
conservative and ancient elements. 


15 

Zosimos 


We now come at last to a fairly historical figure, with no mergings 
into deities or mythical characters: Zosimos of Panopolis. Pie is 
cited by the Synkellos and by Photios; and all the later alchemists 
speak of him with respect. He is the Crown of the Philosophers, 
his language has the Depth of the Abyss. The Souda says that he 
and his sister composed twenty-eight Books, an Alchemic 
Encyclopedia, with the title Cheirokmeta like that of Bolos. 
Portions survive in Greek, or in Syriac versions. 1 It has been said 
that the number twenty-eight was used for his books because he 
named each one after one of the twenty-four Greek letters, plus 
the four more of the ICopt alphabet. But he may have been think¬ 
ing of groups of four books, each under one of the seven planets; 
or of the lunar month. He was a pagan, but his text suffers from 
Christian interpolations, and the alchemist called The Christian 
cites him. He was well read in general Hermetic literature, and 
knew of the /Gtf/tr-baptism, the fall and the ascent to the First 
Man, jAnthropos, the heavenly mirror where the soul sees its true 
nature, and so on. But he was still a genuine practising alchemist, 
whatever his views on the wider aspects of theory. He was cer¬ 
tainly not the same man as Zosimos the historian. 

He cites Demokritos and Afrikanos. The latter was almost 
certainly the Sextus Julius Africanus, at whom we have already 
glanced. He seems a Syrian and lived mainly at Emmaos. The 
Synkellos says that he wrote on medical science, agriculture, 
chemical matters, geography, warfare and the history of Armenia 
(drawing on the tabularia of Edessa). His Chronikon in five books 
dealt with events from the Creation to a.d. 221 ; parts of it were 
extracted by Eusebios in his Chronicle , and some fragments 
survive. He wrote to Origen impugning the authority of the 
Book of Susanna-, his letter and Origen’s reply are extant. Also he 
wrote to Aristeides on Christ’s genealogies in Matthew and Luke. 




























324 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Another work of his was Kestoi (Girdles) named after Aphrodite’s 
Girdle, in twenty-four Books (says the Souda), fourteen (says 
Photios), nine (says the Synkellos): a sort of commonplace book 
on a wide variety of subjects. The Gepokika includes recipes of 
his on the preservation of wine. When Emmaos was burned 
down, his fellow-townsmen sent him to solicit Elegabal for 
its restoration; he succeeded and a new town, Nikopolis, was 
built in 221. The historian Sokrates classes him with Clement 
and Origen as one of the most learned Christian writers. However, 
the Souda tells us that his remedies consisted of written characters, 
incantations and magic words. He is quite likely to have been an 
alchemist. He is cited among alchemic authorities and in an initial 
list. 2 

Zosimos was interested in apparatus, like Maria, whose work 
he knew. He wrote a treatise On Instruments and Furnaces, and he 
referred to the pneumatic and mechanical work of Archimedes 
and Heron. 3 He deals with the tribikos or three-pointed alembic 
and its tube; the description is illustrated with figures showing an 
alembic, head, tubes, recipient, phials on a furnace, with the 
axiom: “Above, the heavenly things; below, the earthly. By the 
male and the female the work is accomplished.” Thus he carries 
on in the idiom of Kleopatra. His counsel is the traditional one of 
silence. Reveal nothing of all that to anyone else and keep these 
things to yourself. Silence teaches virtue. It is very fine to under¬ 
stand the transmutation of the Four Metals, lead, copper, tin and 
silver, and to know how they change into perfect Gold.” In 
On Fime he ends, “This is the secret one has sworn never to 
reveal.” As a result he uses the circuitous and allusive language of 
the art. “This stone which isn’t a stone, this precious thing which 
has no value, this polymorphous thing which has no form, this 
unknown thing which is known of all.” And “here is the Mithraic 
Mystery, the incommunicable Mystery”. 4 



58. Serpent containing the four cardinal points 


ZOSIMOS 


3 2 5 


It is often said that though of Panopolis he must have worked 
in Alexandreia; but there is no reason why he should not have 
mainly lived in his home town, which was a lively centre of 
culture, with its own mixture of Greek and Egyptian elements 
and with a strong pagan nationalism. The letter that he wrote to 
his sister, cited in Chapter II, shows that he shared the Pano- 
politan outlook. 5 His date seems around a.d. 300. In his Com¬ 
mentary on the Fetter Omega he often cites Hermes, especially his 
On Natures and On Immateriality. The Commentary may represent 
one of the twenty-eight books of his encyclopedia; if that work, 
arranged on a planetary basis, began with the Moon, the Omega 
Book would belong to the section on ICronos. 6 The text is not in 
a good state, but it is worthwhile to attempt a rendering: 

The letter Omega, the round one, the twy-formed, the unconquered, 
belonging to the Seventh Zone of ICronos according to the bodily 
sense—for according to the incorporeal sense, it is quite another thing, 
inexplicable, as alone Nikotheos the Hidden [a Gnostic to whom an 
apocalypse was attributed] has known—according then to the bodily 
sense, that which is called the Ocean, “origin and seed of all the gods”, 
says the poet [Homer] .. . this grand and admirable letter Omega 
contains the treatise on the apparatus of the divine water [sulphur] and 
on all the furnaces, mechanical and simple, and generally on all things. 

Zosimos to Theosebeia, may all go well with you. 

Timely tinctures, woman, have turned the book on furnaces into 
ridicule. Many men indeed, on account of having enjoyed the favour 
of their own daimon so that they succeeded with timely tinctures, have 
mocked at the book on furnaces and apparatus, as not being true. And 
no argument could convince them that that book was the truth. Only 
when their own daimon left them at the time marked for them by Fate 
and they were controlled by another daimon , a disastrous one, have they 
been persuaded. Then, after all their art and happiness has been brought 
to a stop and the same formulas of chance have been turned into con¬ 
trary effects, they have been forced in their own despite to face the 
evidence of their Fate’s arguments; and so they have admitted that 
there was some truth in those procedures that previously they scorned. 

But such men could find no admission into the presence of God or of 
the philosophers [alchemists]. Let the times indeed change afresh in 
form and grow better from one moment to the next, let the daimon 
grant them a material benefit, once again they’ll change their opinion 
and agree to the opposite of what they were saying. They forget all 
the earlier factual evidence, and, always at the pull of Fate, whether 
towards the aforesaid opinion or towards its contrary, they can conceive 
nothing but material things, nothing but Fatality. 














ZOSIMOS 


326 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

<t These are the men whom, in his book On Natures , Hermes called: 
“Men without intellect, simple puppets in Fate’s procession, without 
any idea of incorporeal things, not even of the Fate itself that rightly 
drags them along—though they never pause in protesting against her 
corporeal corrections, unable to imagine nothing beyond the benefits 
she gives.” 7 

This is all part of the argument against submitting to Fate, to the 
deterministic view of life. Such a view, it is argued, is inevitable 
in men who cannot rise to a true consciousness of the nature of 
things; for they are indeed at the mercy of forces they cannot 
know and so cannot control. For a while perhaps “timely 
tinctures —that is, work operating on a schematic system of the 
correct “times” for its experiments-may produce good results. 
The men are then impermeable to argument. But when things 
start going wrong, as they certainly will-since abstract schemes 
cannot bring the same consistent results as true knowledge - 
then these men are ready to accept the arguments they denied, 
but their acceptance is made without understanding and is use¬ 
less. Zosimos makes clear that he is speaking, not only of crafts¬ 
men in general, but of certain practitioners of his own art, 
whom he considers to be on the wrong track. Though he does 5 
not here specify their methods, we may assume that they lacked 
in his opinion a grasp of the necessary theory; that they were 
trying to apply recipes and formulas without understanding the 
triadic principles of transformation and the unitary nature of 
matter. He goes on: 

Hermes and Zoroaster have declared the breed of philosophers to be 
above Fate, as they do not rej oice in the good fortune she gives. Rather, 
they are masters of pleasures and are not stricken by the evils she sends 
if they truly look beyond all their ills. And they do not accept the fine 
gifts that come from her, since they pass their life in immateriality. 8 

Here he widens his argument to take in not only alchemists but 
all sages who claimed to be above earthly things and the rule of 
planetary powers. For the moment he is not discussing how cor¬ 
rect they are in considering that they live in an “immaterial” 
sphere. 

The whole bias of his argument is against astrologic determin¬ 
ism, with which he links the question of timely or apportune 
moment, as fixed by the stars. The astrologers claimed to be able 
to find out such moments and thus to settle what was the correct 


327 

time for starting on all enterprises, katarchai. They held that each 
section of time, large or small, was dominated by a particular 
influence, by a chronokrator star, one that controlled time. Calcula¬ 
tions of opportune moments were made especially with the Moon 
as chronokrator-, her revolution was cut into sections of z\ days: the 
time she took to cross a Zodiacal zone. But the principle could be 
applied to the Sun or any planet. The system was particularity 
strong in Egypt where each of the 36 dekans in turn was the 
ruler of one of the 36 dekads; and opportune moments were 
worked out hour by hour. (In the account of Alexander’s birth 
by the pseudo-Kallisthenes, the magician Nectanebo twice held 
up the babe’s emergence so as to make it occur at the moment 
favourable for world-empire.) As metals and minerals were 
thought to grow and be born, the methods used for finding the 
timely moment of katarchai could be applied to metallurgical 
process. Clearly many alchemists had given pre-eminence to these 
astrologic principles, which Zosimos sees as diverting them from 
the real problems of formative process and change. Incidentally 
we notice that the descent of Amnael to Isis was determined by 
the astrologically timely moment (in one of the versions); Zosimos 
would have objected to this detail as an interpolation by the 
deterministic school. 

That is also why Hesiod shows us Prometheus warning Epimetheus: 

“What is in the eyes of men the greatest good-fortune? 

“A lovely woman and a lot of money.” 

To which Prometheus answers: 

“Beware the acceptance of gifts from Olympian Zeus. 

Put them afar from you.” 

Thus he counsels his brother to reject through philosophy the gifts of 
Zeus, that is of Fate. 

Zoroaster declares presumptuously that by knowledge of all the 
things from on high and the magical virtue of corporeal sounds, a man is 
able to ward off all the evils of Fate, both the particular and the universal 
ones. Hermes, on the contrary, in his book On Immateriality takes hold 
also of magic; for he says that the spiritual man, he who understands 
himself, must not redress anything whatever by magic, even if he rates 
it as good, nor must he do violence to Necessity. He should let it act 
according to its nature and its choice, and he should advance solely by 
the quest of himself—holding firmly, in the knowledge of God, to the 
ineffable Triad, and leaving Fate to deal in its own way with the mire 
that belongs to it—that is, the body. 

And thus, he says, by this way of thinking and living, you’ll see the 

















ZOSIMOS 


328 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Son of God becoming all things in favour of the pious souls in order 
to draw the soul from the region of Fate and raise it to incorporeality. 
See him becoming all—god, angel, vulnerable man. For, since he can do 
all, he becomes all he wishes [and he obeys his Father], Penetrating the 
body, illuminating the intellect of each man, he gives him the impulse 
to climb towards the happy region where this intellect is found before 
becoming corporeal, it makes him follow in its track, puts him in a 
state of desire, and serves him as guide up to that supernatural light. 

Zosimos’ text of Hesiod was somewhat interpolated; and his 
interpretation sophisticates the simple meaning in the manner 
of the later allegorisers. But what he says about Zoroaster is 
important. He rejects the idea that some kind of direct gnosis, 
aided by magical forms of compulsion, is the way of mastering 
Fate. The position he sets out for Hermes seems at first glance to 
be close to that of the Stoics with their emphasis on inner balance 
or justice; but for an alchemist the quest for self-knowledge was 
necessarily linked with the quest for the clues of inner change in 
metals. What Hermes and Zosimos are rejecting is the idea that 
one can defeat Fate (all the deterministic mechanisms, which are 
identified with the servile elements in society and with bodily 
necessities) by sacramental-magic means or by a sheer effort of 
will or some short-cut to illumination. These means are con¬ 
sidered as much a dereliction as the mechanistic approach which 
the earlier section of the treatise criticised. The true way is that of 
the Furnaces and Apparatus : presumably the way shown by Maria 
and Kleopatra, in which at every stage experimental action is 
joined with spiritual illumination. 

The latter part of Zosimos’ text given above seems to have been 
in part changed or interpolated by a Christian scribe or commen¬ 
tator. The phrase and he obeys his Father” is an obvious intru¬ 
sion, which attempts to convert the Gnostic saviour into Christ. 
What Zosimos has in mind would be easier to state if we knew 
more of the gnostic Nikotheos whom he cites at the outset. We 
know this thinker only from various references. He was disliked 
by the Neoplatonists; his Apocalypse was attacked by the disciples 
of Porphyrios. But the Manicheans counted him among the 
number of their prophets. In the Gnostic treatise known as the 
Bruce Codex we are told of the Monogene, the Only-begotten, 
that to speak of him as he is, with the tongue of flesh, is impos¬ 
sible”. However some specially favoured men have been able to 
read the mystery: 


329 

That is why the powers of the great Aions paid homage to the power 
that was in Marsanes, saying, “Who is this man, who has seen such 
things face to face?” . . . And Nikotheos spoke about this, for he saw 
who this being was, and he said, “The Father exists, superior to every 
perfect thing.” He has revealed the Triple Power, perfect and invisible. 0 

The Neoplatonists classed him among the Mages. Porphyrios 
remarks of two men whom he considered backsliders: “They had 
departed from the ancient philosophy and possessed a great 
number of works by Alexandros of Libya, of Philkome, of 
Demostratos of Lydia ... They also made show of K .evelations of 
Zoroster, of Zostrian, of Nikotheos, Mesos, and others like them. 
They deceived many people... Plotinos often refuted them.” What 
was there about Nikotheos then that made Zosimos admire his 
account of being rapt to heaven? With the paucity of our materials 
it is hard to say; but perhaps it was an emphasis on the unity of be¬ 
ing and at the same time on the triadic nature of its manifestations. 
It seems we may attribute to Nikotheos the doctrine that the Son 
of God, the Monogenes, could become anything—that is, under¬ 
go any transformation. If so, that would explain why Zosimos 
thought he held the great clue which was denied alike to mecha¬ 
nist-minded seekers and to those relying on magical forces for 
short cuts, to those who thought a philosophic asceticism enough 
in itself and to those confident in gaining special favours from aloft 
by use of appropriate formulas. The alchemic way cut across all 
these methods and held that one could truly save one’s soul only 
by concretely and scientifically entering into the transformations 
of nature, which were also those of the Monogenes, who expressed 
the unitary character of process. 10 

















33 i 


33 ° ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Zosimos goes on about this Monogenes, the Primal Man, also 
called Adam: 

Consider as well the picture that Bitos drew and [what has been written 
by] the thrice-great Plato and the infinitely great Hermes: you will see 
that Thouth is interpreted in hieratic language as the First Man, the 
interpreter of all others, he who gives a name to all corporeal things. 

Bitos is again an obscure figure, but he seems clearly the same 
person as the prophet mentioned by Iamblichos as interpreting 
Hermetic thought; for here again we meet a context of Fate and 
its overcoming. The Egyptians, Iamblichos says, do not attempt 
to solve cosmic matters by reason alone, 

but invite men to ascend, by the aid of hieratic theurgy, towards more 
lofty and more perfect beings, superior to Fate, towards God and the 
demiurge, and do not work on the matter or carry anything out except 
at the exigency of a timely movement. 

Hermes has taught this way; and the prophet Bitys has made 
King Ammon acquainted with it, having found it written in the 
sanctuaries, in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Sais in Egypt. He made 
known that the name of God means whatever is spread out in the whole 
world. But there is in his thought many other ways of dealing with the 
same subjects, so that you don’t seem to be right when you bring 
everything down among the Egyptians to physical causes. 11 

The pantheistic note that Iamblichos attributes to Bitys may well 
explain why Zosimos thought highly of him. Just as Nikotheos 
(if I am right) saw the divine force undergoing transformations 
into anything and everything, so Bitys saw that force at work 
everywhere and anywhere. Zosimos, by the way, in the last 
passage of his cited, makes a common pun on Hermes and 
hermeneus (interpreter). He goes on: 

The Chaldaians, the Parthians, the Medes, and the Hebrews call him 
Adam: which is interpreted as Virgin Earth, earth the colour of blood, 
earth red-fire, earth of flesh. We find all this set out in the Libraries of 
the Ptolemies, and deposits of these writings were made in each temple, 
especially in the Sarapieion, when Anesas the highpriest of Jerusalem 
was invited to send an interpreter who translated the Hebrew text [of 
the Bible] into Greek and into Egyptian. 

Iranian speculations on the Primal Man went far back. Hippo- 
lytos tells us that the Chaldaians called him Adam, the Assyrians 
Adonis or Endymion, the Phrygians Attis, the Egyptians Osiris, 


ZOSIMOS 

and the Greeks Hermes—while the Hymn to Attis resumed these 
names, adding that the Samothracians called the Primal Man 
Adamna, the Haimonioi ICorybas, and the Phrygians also used 
the name Papa. 12 As for Adam as the Earth, Olympiodoros adds, 
“He became the first man of all out of the Four Elements; he is 
called also the Virgin Earth and the Fiery Earth and the Earth 
of Flesh and the Earth looking like Blood: you will find these 
things in the Ptolemaic Libraries.” We have here a set of puns 
worked out by Alexandrian Jews: Hebrew adamah = Earth, and 
Greek admes = Virgin. Hesychios has “Adama: Virgin Earth”, 
and Josephos says of Adam: “which signifies one that is flame- 
coloured as he was made out of fiery [red] earth; for such is virgin 
earth.” 13 Zosimos seems drawing on Jewish-Egyptian sources 
for his remark on the Bible, which replaces the name usually 
given, Eleazar, with Anesas, and adds a (non-existent) version 
into Egyptian. 

So, the First Man, who is Thouth among us, these peoples have named 
Adam, with a name borrowed from the tongue of the angels. And not 
only that, but they have named him symbolically, using Four Stoicheia 
[Letters, Elements] drawn from the totality of the sphere, according to 
the body. The A of this name of this name expresses the rising sun, air; 
the D expresses the setting sun, the earth which inclines downwards on 
account of its weight; [the second A expresses the north, water]; M 
expresses the maturing fire which is intermediary between these bodies 
and which refers to the intermediary zone, the fourth. 

Thus it is that the sensual Adam is named Thouth according to the 
external patterning. As for the man who is inside Adam, the spiritual 
man, he has simultaneously a personal and a universal name. His 
personal name I have not learned so far; only indeed Nikotheos the 
unmatchable has known it. His universal name is Phos [Light]: hence 
the way of calling men Photes. 

When Phos was in Paradise breathing in the freshness [the Archon- 
tes], instigated by Fate persuaded him, as something harmless and 
without after-effect, to put on the body of Adam which came from 
their hands, which had issued from Fate, which was formed of the Four 
Elements. He, being without guile, did not refuse and they glorified in 
the thought that henceforth they held him in slavery. 

Indeed the external man is a bond, as Hesiod says, the bond by which 
Zeus bound Prometheus. Then, after that bond, Zeus sent him as 
another bond Pandora, whom the Hebrews call Eve. In allegorical 
terms, Prometheus and Epimetheus compose together a single man: 
that is, soul and body. At one moment Prometheus [Man] resembles 
the soul, at another lie resembles the intellect, at another the flesh, 











ZOSIMOS 


333 


332 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

because of the refusal of Epimetheus when he refused to listen to his 
own [intellect]. 

In effect the Nous, our god, declares: “The Son of God, who can do 
all things and become all things as he wishes, shows himself as he wishes 
to each man.” 

And up to this day, and on till the end of the world, in secret and 
in hidden ways, he comes to those who are his and communicates with 
them, counselling them, in secret and by means of their intellect to 
separate themselves from their Adam, who blinds them and who 
grudges the spiritual and luminous man. 

Thus it goes on until there comes the falsely-imitating daimon, who 
grudges them and who wants, as before, to send them astray by calling 
himself the Son of God, though he is hideous of soul and body. But 
they become wiser since they received into themselves him who is 
truly Son of God, they deliver over to him their own Adam so that he 
may kill him, while they save their luminous spirits for their own home¬ 
land—there where they were before coming into the world. 

But at first, before reaching these audacities, the false imitator, the 
jealous one, sends from Persia his precursor who launches out in lying 
discourses and who drags men along in the procession of Fate. His 
name has nine letters, counting the dipthong as two: which corresponds 
to the number in Fate. [The name is Manichaios : Fate is Heimarmene .] 
Then, after about Seven Periods, he himself will come in his own nature. 

We find all that only among the Jews and in the sacred books of 
Hermes, concerning the luminous man and his guide the Son of God, 
the terrestrial Adam and his guide the false-imitator, who calls himself 
by a blasphemous lie, the Son of God. The Greeks call the terrestrial 
Adam Epimetheus, who receives from his intellect [that is, his brother] 
the advice not to accept the gifts of Zeus. However after having fallen 
repented, and sought the blessed land ... [As for Prometheus, the 
intellect] he explains all and advises in all matters those with spiritual 
ears. But those with only corporeal ears belong to Fate, for they accept 
and admit nothing else. 

Those who succeed in timely tinctures assert that there is nothing 
outside their art, and mock at the great book on Furnaces, they do not 
even heed these words of the Poet (Homer): “So far the gods have 
never given to men all good things all together,” and what follows, 
and they pay no attention, they do not guard against the ordinary 
course of human affairs in the sense that, with regard to a given art, 
success is various, various the practise, from the fact that the diversity 
of human manners and astral figures make the art in question also 
diverse, that one artisan takes the lead, another remains a simple 
craftsman, while another remains backward and yet another, still worse, 
makes no progress at all. 


We see then that in all industries men practise the same art with 
tools and methods that differ and show themselves to possess varying 
degrees of intelligence and success. But more than in any other it is in 
the Sacred Art above all that one can make this statement. Take for 
instance the case of a bone-fracture. One finds a bone-setting priest 
and he, strong in piety towards the gods, re-sets the bones so well that 
one hears a grating noise as the bones fit into one another. If one cannot 
find a priest, in order to stop the afflicted man from fearing that he’ll 
die, one goes in search of physicians who own books filled with line 
drawings shaded in the manner of painters and with all sorts of designs. 
Then, according to what the book says, one binds the patient all around 
with a dressing, and he lives a long time with his health recovered. So 
there is no question of leaving the man to die, just because one didn’t 
find a bone-setting priest. But the persons of whom I speak, on 
meeting a failure, leave themselves to die of hunger because they didn’t 
take the trouble to understand and to realise the “bone-setting” model 
of the Furnaces, which would have made them, happy mortals, 
triumph over poverty, that incurable evil. 

I have omitted some brief Christian interpolations, which disturb 
the flow of the argument. 14 The imitative spirit, Antimimos , 
recalls the Counterfeiting Spirit of the Gnostics (considered in 
Chapter II); also the Antitheos of the Mazdeans and the cheat 
of II Thessalonians (2,4). The precursor from Persia seems 
certainly Manichaios (Mani), who died under Bahram I (a.d. 
2 y 4 _y 7 ). As for the Seven Periods, Zosimos has drawn these 
from the works of the Magousaioi who taught that the life of the 
world was divided into seven ages or millennia, each under a 
planet of its own and bearing the name of the metal associated 
with the planet. We noted this creed at the outset of our inquiry 
(in Chapter II). Such Magian views developed into the Jewish- 
Christian chiliastic creeds. Lactantius among the Christians in 
particular set out the schemes, drawing on a Mazdean source. The 
world was to last six thousand years; then the reign of Christ 
would be established on earth for a millennium of felicity; in the 
eighth millenium the universe would be destroyed and recreated 
in a form that would last forever. Lactantius noted with gratifica¬ 
tion that in this matter pagan wisdom agreed with Christian revela¬ 
tion, and he specially praised Hystaspes, whom he considered a 
“very ancient king of the Medes”, an inspired man. Pie therefore 
had no scruples in incorporating passages from The Apokalypse 
of Hystaspes into his Institutions. 

We may note that the person who is to come after the seven 











334 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

periods in Zosimos’ formulation is probably, not the Antimimos 
(as the grammar would make us suppose), but the true redeemer, 
the Monogenes. In the final passage the hit-or-miss skill of the 
priest is compared with the fully-grounded knowledge of the 
physician with his books involving both theory and practice. 
As for the main sources of Zosimos’ exposition, he himself indi¬ 
cates them: the work of Nikotheos, various works of Hermes, and 
an allegorical exegesis of Genesis. We may add an allegorical work 
on Hesiod. Philon of Alexandreia shows us how Hellenised Jews 
explained their Bible in highly fanciful and elaborately symbolic 



60. Cosmic serpent enclosing Hermopolis 

terms; and though the allegorisers worked mainly on Homer 
among the ancient poets, Hesiod was not forgotten. 15 

After his long introduction, Zosimos says, “But enough on this 
point: let’s return to our subject, which concerns apparatus.” 
He tells his sister that he feels repugnance, since he cannot hope 
to do better than the ancients, yet he’ll submit to his pupil’s 
wish and compose his treatise on Furnaces. However, all that 
survives is a passage on the alembic. But we may assume that the 
following account of tribikos and tube is a part of the promised 
treatise. 16 

In a treatise called Final Account —apparently the concluding 
part of his encyclopedia—Zosimos again sets out his position, 
but this time he speaks mainly of tinctures. The full title is The 
First Book of the Final Account of 'Zosimos the Theban : some scribe 
has perhaps added the name of Thebes as that of a place of 


zosimos 335 

renown. 17 First comes the letter to his sister on metallurgy in old 
Egypt. He goes on: 

Some persons then reproach Demokritos and the Ancients for not 
having mentioned these two arts, but only those that are termed 
noble. This reproach is futile. They could not do it, these men who 
were the friends of the Kings of Egypt and who gloried in holding the 
first rank in the class of prophets. How could they have openly, 
against royal orders, set out in public their knowledge and give others 
the sovran power of wealth? 

Even if they could have done it, they would not; for they were 
careful of their secrets. It was possible only for Jews, secretly, to 
operate, write, and publish these things. Indeed we find that Theophilos, 
son of Theogenes, has described all the country’s goldmines and we 
have Maria’s treatise on Furnaces as well as other writings by Jews. 

We see his Egyptian pride again obtruding; also his wish to 
enlarge the prestige of his craft by painting the greatness of his 
predecessors, the high regard in which they were held. King s 
Friend” was an honorific title, often found in the astrologers; 
and the rank of prophet was the highest one in the priestly 
hierarchy. Bolos in Physika and Mystika speaks of his Fellow- 
Prophets. 18 The Hermetic idea of the Prophet is given in Kore 
Kosmou : 

They are those who learned from Hermes that the atmosphere is filled 
with daimons and have engraved it on hidden stelai. 

They are those who alone, instructed by Hermes of the secret 
ordinances of God, have made themselves for humanity the initiators 
and legislators of the arts, sciences, and craft-activities of all sorts. 

They are those who, having learned from Hermes that things below 
have received from the Demiurge the order-of-being in sympathy with 
those above, have instituted on earth the sacred functions linked 

vertically with the mysteries of heaven. 

They are those, who, having recognised the corruptibility of bodies, 
have ingeniously created the perfected excellence in all matters of the 
prophets, so that never is a prophet, destined to lift his hands to the 
gods, ignorant of any of the beings—and so that philosophy and magic 
may nourish the soul, and medicine cure the body when afflicted with 
any ill. 19 

Zosimos continues with his account of tinctures: 

But neither Jews nor Greeks have ever made public timely tinctures. 
These tinctures, indeed, the Jews deposit in the [treasuries] where they 
put their riches, giving them to divine images to guard. As for the 
























ZOSIMOS 


337 


336 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

treatment of minerals, which differs much from timely tinctures, they 
do not show themselves at all as jealous—because this art cannot but 
show itself outwardly and whoever tries to practise it [cannot] remain 
without punishment. If in effect a man is caught digging a mine by the 
inspectors of State Manufactures on account of royal revenues ... or 
because furnaces cannot be hidden away, while timely tinctures are 
carried on quite out of view. That’s why you don’t see that any of the 
ancients has published secretly or openly, anything whatever on the 
subject. In the whole series of the ancients, I have found only 
Demokritos making allusion to it.. . 

It is clear that formerly, in the time of Hermes, these tinctures were 
called natural, as they had to be described in terms of the general title 
of the book called Book of Natural Tinctures, dedicated to Isidoros. But 
when they became the object of the jealousy of the daimons of the 
flesh, they became timely tinctures and took over that name. Still, 
reproaches are made to the ancients, and above all to Hermes, for not 
having published them, secretly or openly, and for making no allusion 
to them. 

Only Demokritos has set them out in his work and mentioned them. 
And as for them [the ancient Egyptians], they engraved them on their 
stelai in the darkness and depths of the temples in symbolic characters 
—both the tinctures and the chorography of Egypt—so that, even 
though one carried boldness to the point of penetrating into those 
dark depths, if one had neglected to learn the key, one could not 
decipher the characters for all one’s boldness and trouble. 

. The J ews > then > imitating the Egyptians, deposited the timely 
tinctures in their subterranean chambers together with their formulas 
of initiation; and they set down this warning in their testaments: “If 
you find my treasures, leave the gold to those who desire their own 
ruin; but if you find out how to understand the characters, you will 
gather all the wealth again in a short while. On the other hand, if you 
take only the wealth, you will go to your ruin because of the jealousy of 
kings, and not only of kings, but of all men .” 20 

These passages give us another reason why the alchemists were 
so secretive. The harping on the “jealousy of kings” reminds us 
of the probable persecution under Diocletian; under either the 
Ptolemies or the Romans anyone known to be dedicated to 
goldmaking was sure to attract the unwelcome attention of the 
authorities and be exposed to ridicule and persecution. 

There are then two kinds of timely tinctures. One of them, that of 
stuffs, the daimons who watch over every place have handed over to 
their own priests. That is why, besides, they are called timely, because 
they operate according to the timely moments through the will of the 


supposed daimons; and when the daimons cease from giving their 
assent [they fail to operate]. . . . 

The other kind of timely tinctures, that of genuine and natural 
tinctures, were set down by Hermes on the stelai: “Melt down the sole 
thin g which may be greenish yellow, red, sun-colour, pale green, 
yellow of ochre, green verging on black, and the rest.” As for the earths 
themselves, Hermes has called them with a secret name, “sands”, and 
has revealed the kinds of colours. These tinctures act naturally, but 
they are grudged by the terrestrial daimons. However, if anyone, after 
being initiated, drives the daimons away, he will obtain the sought-for 
result. 

How far Zosimos was really worried about daimons and how far 
he is using allegorical language is hard to say. The comment about 
the timely tinctures being “handed over to the priests” whom the 
daimons serve, suggests some sort of rivalry between the al¬ 
chemists and the priesthood—though how it could operate is not 
clear. Timely Tinctures, in their opposition to Natural Ones, cer¬ 
tainly mean those operations carried out according to astrologic 
systems which determined the correct time and place of work. 
We are reminded of Iamblichos’ remark about the Egyptians 
refusing to “carry anything out except at the exigency of a timely 
movement”. There he is apparently giving this attitude the 
authority of Hermes and Bitys, two of Zosimos’ mentors; but he 
may be citing those thinkers, not for the particular point he has 
just made, but for the general Egyptian scheme of the cosmos 
he has been outlining: 

There is among them another hegemony of all the elements diffused in 
generation and forces residing in it: four female forces and four male 
forces. This hegemony belongs to the sun. And there is another 
principle of universal nature existing in generation that is attributed to 
the moon. Dividing the heaven into two, four, a dozen, thirty-six parts, 
or double that, or in some other number of some sort of parts, they put 
at the head of these, hegemonies more or less numerous. But above all 
is set the One that is their superior. And thus among the Egyptians the 
procedure is to start from above, from the principles down to the last 
beings, while giving to them all the one as Origin. Everything ends in 
a multitude of beings ruled by a One, and indeterminate nature is 
governed by a determinate measure that is the supreme unity. . . . 21 

Zosimos seems to dislike the astrologic schemes as expressive 
of determinism and the rule of Fate. Sometimes, he has said, the 
calculations come off and convince their adherents; then they fail. 
What he wants is a complete unity of theory and practice; and 
















339 


33 8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

this it seems is embodied in what he calls Natural Tinctures. For 
such operations were achieved by making the laboratory work 
reflect and repeat the actual processes of nature in their fullness. 
By “natural” then he means, not “carried out by nature”, but 
“carried out in the same way as nature”. He goes on about the 
daimons , who, in their pestering ways, have some analogy with the 
watchful inspectors who prosecute the infringers of State rights 
and controls. 

Thus then the watchful daimons, once repelled by the powerful men of 
old, resolved to take control of the Natural Tinctures in our stead, so 
as to be no longer chased off by men, but to receive their prayers, to be 
invoked by them, and to be regularly nourished by their sacrifices. 
That is then what they did. They hid all the natural procedures, which 
acted through themselves, not only because they were jealous of men, 
but also because they were concerned with their own subsistence, so 
as not to be whipped, chased out, and killed with hunger through 
receiving no more sacrifices. 

This is what they did. They hid the natural tincture and introduced 
in its place their non-natural tincture, and they handed these procedures 
on to their priests, and, if the village-folk neglected the sacrifices, they 
prevented them from succeeding even in the non-natural tincture. All 
those then who learned the so called doctrine of the daimons of the 
time fabricated waters, and, by reason of custom, law, and fear, their 
sacrifices multiplied. 

However, the daimons did not fulfil even the false promises that they 
had made. But when there had resulted a complete change-round of 
the klimata [meaning unclear here, apparently some matter of astrolo¬ 
gical zoning] and the region was devastated by war and the human 
race disappeared from it. 22 When the temples of daimons were nothing 
but a desert and their sacrifices were neglected, they began to flatter 
the surviving men and persuaded them by dream, on account of their 
falsity, and by many presages, to adhere to the sacrifices. And as they 
renewed their false promises of non-natural tinctures, all the unhappy 
men, devoted to pleasure and ignorant, were filled with rejoicing. 

They want to do all this to you too, woman, through the interven¬ 
tion of their pseudo-prophet. These local daimons flatter you; for they 
hunger not only for sacrifices but also for your soul. 

Clearly Theosebeia has come under the influence of alchemists 
whose methods are considered wrong-headed by Zosimos. 
Hence his long diatribe. We could make more sense of his remarks 
if we knew better just what he means by the Tinctures. He sug¬ 
gests a considerable amount of work being done on them; 


ZOSIMOS 



6i. Cosmic serpent, two-headed 


perhaps, however, he is speaking of a particular area, presumably 
that of Panopolis. For, after using general terms, he comes down 
to a single region which has had a very bad time and been almost 
depopulated. He infers that both the villagers and the priests had a 
strong interest in the manufactures connected with the tinctures, 
and that the methods of which he disapproves were linked with 
particular cults, which profited from the work being done by their 
devotees. His language suggests the local gods of the Egyptian 
nomes, but the general tone of his protest implies gods involved 
in the astrologic systems. It is quite possible that the region of 
Panopolis, which lay downstream from Thebes, Dendera, 
Abydos, in Upper Egypt, had suffered from warfare not long 
before 300. In 172 there had been the revolt of the Boukoloi, 
native auxiliary troops stationed in the Delta. An Egyptian 
priest Isidoros led the revolt, which was marked by a fierce 
nationalist feeling. Further, the social and economic crisis that set 
in in the mid-jrd century led to a weakening of military controls, 
and there were incursions of desert-nomads, Libyans and Blem- 
myes. The latter had appeared in the Thebaid, it seems, from 
253; the prefect-usurpator organised an expedition against them 
about 260. And Firmus, who occupied Egypt (probably in the 
name of the Palmyrene princes) was allied with the Blemmyes, 
who figured in the 274 triumph of Aurelian. Worse, under 
Probus, these tribesmen made a fresh attack and reached as far 
as Ptolemais, not far upstream from Panopolis, where the rebel¬ 
lious townsfolk welcomed them. Between the years 258 and 294 























34° ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


ZOSIMOS 


341 


we do not have a single dated ostrakon that comes certainly from 
the Theban region. 23 There is thus every reason to think that 
some areas around Panopolis, especially perhaps those nearer to 
Thebes, had been badly hit by incursions of the Blemmyes in the 
later 3rd century; and this fact helps us to fix the date of Zosimos 
round 300 or the early 4th century. 

That other alchemists with rival claims were at work nearby 
is shown by Zosimos’ appeal to his sister cited above. Again 
in On the Treatment of Magnesia he writes, “My blessed girl, turn 
away from the useless principles of those who confuse your ears. 
I have heard that you’re in converse with the virgin Paphnoutia 
and other uneducated persons; and you attempt to put into 
practice the useless and empty fables that you hear among them.” 
Of these opponents of his he names also “Neilos, your priest”. 24 
Unless the phrase is used ironically, here is further evidence that 
the priests played a leading part in the tincturings that Zosimos 
disliked. He now makes a final call on his sister, setting out his 
ideal alchemist. 

Then do not let yourself be drawn this way and that, like a woman, as 
I have already told you in my book According to Energy. Do not be 
agitated off in all directions in the quest of God, but remain seated at 
your hearth and God will come to you—he who is everywhere and who 
is not limited to the lowest space like the daimons. In this calm repose 
of body, lull to repose also your passions, greed, pleasure, anger, 
chagrin, and the dozen lots [moirai\ of death. And so, correcting your¬ 
self, call the divinity to you and it will truly come—it being what is 
everywhere and nowhere. 

Then, without even being invited to do it, offer sacrifices to the 
daimons, not those who profit from them [the false alchemists], not 
those who nourish and comfort them, but those who chase them off 
and make them disappear, those whose formula Mambres gave to 
Solomon King of Jerusalem, and those who that Solomon himself has 
written out of his own wisdom. By acting in this way, you will gain 
the genuine timely and natural tinctures. Do all this until you attain 
perfection of soul. And when you realise that you’ve been made perfect, 
then, having gained the natural tinctures, spit upon matter, find your 
refuge with Poimandres, and, having received the baptism of the Krater, 
hurry on to rejoin your own people. 

I now come however to the task that Your Imperfection sets me. But 
I must first expatiate a little more and consider afresh the object of our 
inquiry. I must not show myself inferior and the theme is one that is 
easy to get out of focus. 


This eloquent passage makes clear further why and how Zosimos 
dislikes those who seek magical methods of compulsion, formulas 
or procedures for seeking out a deity. His moral and philosophic 
position implies a similar sort of patience and acceptance in deal¬ 
ing with the processes of matter. There must be no forcing of 
conclusions, no attempts to find short-cuts. The alchemist must 
learn by a total acceptance of the phenomena and of their systems 
of inner organisation or dynamic transformation. If he has any 
use for magic, it is in a wholly negative sense: in order to drive 
away all outward interferences of man or spirit. His Mambres 
may be a transcription of Memra (The Word of God personified: 
Mmra or Mambres), but is more likely a form of Iambres, whom 
we noted above as one of the Egyptian wizards opposing Moses. 
There was a considerable apocryphal literature of Solomon, to 
whom exorcisms were particularly attributed. 25 Zosimos, we see, 
knows the Hermetic Poimandres and accepts the idea of the 
krater- baptism. 26 The ironic use of the form of address. Your 
Imperfection, suggests that fully initiated alchemists formally 
called one another Your Perfection. 

After the “above passage there is a gap. He apparently cited 
Hermes; for he goes on, “Listen what he says soon after: The two 
Eggs, having been drunk down, are only a simple thing, which 
has become diverse, with one part humid and cold, another part 
dry and cold, and these two make up only a single work.” Then 
after repeating, “But now I come to the assigned task,” he deals 
with processes of timely tincturing, one by raw tincture, the 
other by cooking. The second kind he subdivides according to the 
liquids used (water or wine) or the furnaces or the duration and 
strength of the fires.” He concludes, “These tinctures are then the 
faculty of corrupting a large quantity as well as a small one, in 
the sense that one obtains them as well in glass furnaces [?] as 
in large or little crucibles, and in various apparatus by means of 
fires and through the force of fires. Experience is what will prove 



62. Ouroboros on a magical gem (with inscription IAOABRASAX) 


12 


















342 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


it together with uprightness in all matters of the soul. As for the 
demonstration of the fires and all the things in question, you have 
them in The Tetter Omega. It is from this point then that I am going 
to begin, purple-adorned woman.” 27 

He here brings out succinctly how the ascetic way of life, reject¬ 
ing all the lures of the world, is seen as only the other side of the 
intellectual and technical struggle to strip material process down 
to its essentials. The devoted concentration of the alchemist is 
one aspect of experimental work which includes the discovery 
of the pure pattern of change and development. 28 


16 

More on Zosimos 


With Maria, Kleopatra and Zosimos we have then entered upon 
solid historical ground. Bolos of Mendes certainly existed and 
made a crucial contribution of some sort, linking the more daring 
aspects of the thought of Demokritos with Iranian and Egyptian 
systems; but it is hard to distinguish him clearly. With Hermes, 
Ostanes, Agathodaimon, Isis, Pebechios and the others we are in 
a confused territory, where mythical figures are used by a blurred 
series of writers and at best we can make out certain tendencies 
or schools. Maria with her inventive love of apparatus and 
Kleopatra with her lyrical sense of the renewal and transformation 
of life are, however, felt as definite characters, even if it is hard 
to make out where they worked and what were their circumstances. 
With Zosimos, despite many difficulties, things are quite different. 
Here is an indubitable practitioner living about 300 in Upper 
Egypt, at Panopolis, who is making a strenuous effort to maintain 
the practical side of the art, while responding to the various 
tendencies of his world (Gnostic, poetic, philosophic) and seeking 
to build a stable system of theory. One interesting aspect of the 
development of alchemy in the Roman era is the role played by 
women. Apart from the important work done by Maria and 
Kleopatra, there is Theosebeia and Paphnoutia. Though Zosimos 
indulges in one quip about woman’s fickle mind, he clearly takes 
the development of his sister as seriously as if she were a brother 
or son. 

His treatise On Virtue gives us his imaginative vision of what 
alchemic process meant. This work and Kleopatra’s Discourse are 
the great documents of alchemy, which give us a rich and pro¬ 
found insight into the minds and spirits of practitioners when the 
whole thing was still fresh, in its first full creative outburst. The 
treatise deals with the composition of the Waters, but is in fact an 
account of what the alchemist saw and felt as the innermost 















344 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGPYT 

meaning of the process in which he considered himself as much 
involved as the minerals. 

The composition of the Waters, the movement, growth, removal and 
restoration of bodily nature, the separation of spirit from body, and 
the fixation of spirit and body, are not due to alien natures, but to a 
single nature reacting on itself, a single species, such as the hard bodies 
of metals and the moist juices of plants. And in this system, single and 
many-coloured, is comprised a research, multiple and varied, sub¬ 
ordinated to lunar influences and to the measure of time, which rule the 
end and the increase according to which nature transforms herself. 

Saying these things, I went to sleep, and I saw a sacrificing priest 
stand up before me on the top of a bowl-shaped altar. Fifteen steps led 
up to this altar. Then the priest stood up and I heard a voice from above 
saying to me, “I have completed the descent of the fifteen steps of 
darkness and the ascent of the steps of light, and it is he that sacrifices 
who renews me, casting away the coarseness of the body, and, being 
consecrated priest by necessity, I become a spirit.” 

So I heard the voice of him standing on the bowl-shaped altar, and I 
questioned him, wanting to find out who he was. He answered in a 
frail voice, “I am Ion, the sanctuary’s priest, and I have survived 
intolerable violence. For in the morning one came headlong, dis¬ 
membered me with a sword, and tore me apart according to the rigours 
of harmony. And flaying my head with the sword held fast in his grip, 
he mingled my bones with my flesh and burned them in the fire of the 
treatment—till I learned by the transformation of the body to become a 
spirit.” 

While he spoke these words and I compelled him to speak, his eyes, 
became like blood and he vomited up all his flesh. And I saw him as a 
mutilated little image of a man, tearing himself with his own teeth and 
falling away. 

And I awoke in my fear and I thought, “Is this not the situation of 
the Waters?” I believed that I had understood it all well and again I 
fell asleep. 

And I saw the same bowl-shaped altar and at the top the water 
bubbling and many people endlessly in it. And there was no one outside 
the altar whom I could ask. Then I went up to the altar to see the sight. 
And I saw a little man, a barber whitened by years, who asked, “What 
are you looking at?” 

I replied that I wondered at the boiling of the water and the men 
burned yet living. And he answered me, “It is the place of the exercise 
called preserving [embalming]. For those men who wish to gain virtue 
come here and become spirits in their flight from the body.” 

So I said, “Are you a spirit?” 

And he replied, “A spirit and a guardian of spirits.” 


MORE ON ZOSIMOS 345 

And while he told us these things and while the boiling increased 
and the people wailed, I saw a man of copper with a writing-tablet of 
lead in his hand. And he spoke aloud, looking at the tablet. “I advise 
those under punishment to compose themselves and each to take in his 
hand a leaden writing-tablet and write with his own hand. I advise 
them all to keep their faces upwards and their mouths open until your 
[sic] grapes are grown. 

The action followed the word, and the master of the house said to 
me, “You have seen. You have stretched your neck on high, and seen 
what is done.” 

And I said that I’d seen, and I said to myself, “This Man of Copper 
you have seen is the sacrificing priest and the sacrifice and he who 
vomited out his own flesh. And authority over this Water and the men 
under punishment was given to him.” 

And having had this vision, I woke again and said to myself, “What 
is the occasion of this vision? Is not this the white and yellow Water, 
boiling, divine [sulphurous] ?” And I found that I understood it well. 
And I said that it was fair to speak and fair to listen and fair to give and 
fair to receive and fair to be poor and fair to be rich. For how does the 
nature learn to give and to receive?” 1 

The chemical basis of the vision is doubtless the reaction between 
metals and a reagent, the breakdown of the metals, and their 
final restoration to a metallic condition: the change from body to 
spirit and then to body again at a higher level, a different qualita¬ 
tive level. But because the process involves all natures, all lives, 
it is also a human drama of suffering and renewal. The bowl¬ 
shaped altar is the alembic-womb of transformation. In Vedic 
India the sacrificial altar, vedi, was female, and the ritual fire, agni, 
male; their union brought forth offspring. The vedi is compared 
with the earth-naval, nabhi, the centre, which was also the womb 
of the Goddess. The altar-womb is again the cauldron of renewal, 
which we meet in Greek and Celtic myth and ritual. 2 Further, 
the Brahmanas depict the making of the individual (a micro- 
cosmic expression of the general cosmogony) by means of rituals, 
in which the priests collect and assemble the atman in order to 
bring about a perfect whole. The model of their procedure appears 
in the myth of Prajapati who becomes “unstrung” and is put 
together again; his putting-together is identified with the con¬ 
struction of a fire-altar. “With his joints unstrung he was in¬ 
capable of standing up, and the gods put them together again by 
means of sacrifices.” Thus sacrifice, which is in one sense a 
rending-apart of the unity of things, appears also as a restoration 


















MORE ON ZOSIMOS 


347 


346 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of the unity, and the altar is the place where this breakdown and 
reunification (or rejuvenation) takes place; the sacrificer, during 
the rite, becomes the whole universe, its demiurgic energies. The 
three stages of Prajapati, we may note, correspond to the triadic 
formula, the three stages of alchemic change. First comes the 
embryonic stage (the return to chaos and primary matter), which 
is extremely dangerous; then the formation of the new body and 
the successful birth; then the achievement of power or stability. 
The rites of consecrating a king (i.e. of renewing cosmos) in this 
third phase take the form of establishing him as fCosmokrator; he 
raises his arms, symbolising the setting-up of the world-axis. At 
final consecration he stands on the throne with arms thus raised, 
imitating the axis fixed in the earth-navel and reaching to the sky; 
his asperging symbolises the descent of the Waters out of the 
Heavens along the axis to fertilise the Earth; and he takes a step 
towards each of the four cardinal points and symbolically mounts 
to the zenith. 3 The body here, set in the axial line of the flow of 
cosmic force, is repeating the up-down pattern we traced in 
Imakh-sa-Pesevj. In Greek craft-myth Chalkos the man-of-bronze 
must have been considered a product of bronze-process; and 
we find related names - Chalkodon, father of Chalkiopeian 
(bronze-faced) which in turn suggests Chalkis in Euboia and its 
bronze industry. 

The hoary-headed barber may seem out of place in the situation; 
but barbers had always been connected with cosmetics and 
beautification, which were regarded as works of transformation. 
They themselves concocted cosmetics, or else bought them from 
the unguentarii and rhi^ontes, botanists, who as part of their trade 
made perfumes. We may note too that the barber here comes in at 
a moment of preservation or embalming; he could be viewed as a 
surrogate of the embalmer. To change looks and especially to 



give a youthful life-enhancing appearance had its magical values; 
the processes originated in a mixture of religious, magical and 
medical rites. The dead were unguented and perfumed to aid their 
resurrection; the living used the materials on festival or ritual 
occasions when the earth was momentarily merged with the 
spirit world. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, dated to the 
16th century b.c., has recipes on its back that probably belong to 
. the period of its transcription. Transformation and beautification 
are identified: 

Recipe for transforming the skin\ Honey 1, red natron 1, northern salt, 1. 
Triturate together and anoint with mixture. 

Another recipe for beautifying the face : Alabaster grains 1, natron kernals 
1, northern salt 1, honey 1. Mix together and anoint. 

One long recipe runs thus: 

beginning of the Rook of Transforming an Old Man into a Youth. Let there 
be brought a large quantity of fenugreek fruit about 2 khar. It should 
be bruised and set in the sun. When it’s quite dry, let it be husked as 
grain is husked, and it should be winnowed until only the fruit 
remains. Everything that comes from it shall be measured and let the 
husks be sifted after the way of the threshing-floor with sieves. Also 
measure everything that comes from these fruits and make them into 2 
equal parts. One made up of these fruits, the other of the husks. Treat 
one like the other [make them alike]. 

Let the whole be set aside mixed with water. Make into a soft mass 
and let it be set in a new jar over the fire and cooked very thoroughly, 
making sure they boil, evaporating the juice and drying them till it is 
like dry, without moisture in it. Let it be removed from the fire. Now 
when cool, let it be put in another jar so as to wash it in the river. Let it 
be washed thoroughly, making sure they are washed by testing the 
taste of this water that’s in the jar, till it has no bitterness at all. It 
should be set in the sun, spread on the launderer’s [bleached] linen. 

Now when it’s dry, it should be ground on the grinding quern. Let 
it be mixed with water. Make like a soft mass and let it be set in a jar 
over the fire and thoroughly cooked, making sure that it boils, that 
little drops of oil may go out from it. A man shall dip out the oil that 
has come of it, with a dipper. Put into a bin- jar after coating the inside 
with clay. Knead and make thick its consistency. Dip out this oil and 
pour on a linen sieve into the top of this &«-jar. Afterwards it should 
be put in a vase of costly stone [alabaster], 

[;Directions ] Anoint a man with it. It is the remover of wrinkles from 
the head. When the flesh is smeared with it, it becomes a beautifier of 

















349 


34 8 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

the skin, a remover of blemishes, of all disfigurements, of all signs 
of age, of all weaknesses that are in the flesh. Found effective myriads 
of times. 4 

This recipe is on the same line as the mixtures of oatmeal or almond- 
meal and water, used by modern cosmetic-experts to remove 
wrinkles. We can see that a barber is not so out of place in 
Zosimos’ Visions as we might at first think. Zosimos goes on: 

The Copper Man gives and the watery stone receives; the metal gives 
and the plant receives; the stars give and the flowers receive; the sky 
gives and the earth receives; the thunderclaps give the fire that darts 
from them. For all things are interwoven and separate afresh, and all 
things are mingled and all things combine, and things are mixed and 
unmixed, all things moistened and all things dried, and all things flower 
and blossom in the bowlshaped altar. 

For each it is by method, by measure and weight of the four elements, 
that the interlacing and dissociation of all is carried out. No bond can be 
made without method. It is a natural method, breathing in and 
breathing out, keeping the arrangements of the method, increasing or 
decreasing them. When, in a word, all things come to harmony by 
division and union, without the methods being neglected in any way, 
the nature is transformed. For the nature being turned upon itself is 
transformed; and it is the nature and the bond of the virtue of the whole 
world. 

This insistence on consistency and pervasiveness of method is in 
the key of the Commentary on Omega-, and it seems odd to us in the 



64. Egyptian barber and customer 


more on zosimos 

post-Galilean world that Zosimos did not see the need to follow 
up this respect for “method, measure and weight”, by attempting 
precise quantitative assessments of his experiments and their 
ingredients, at least to the extent that the existing crude instru¬ 
ments and apparatus permitted. Once the alchemists had seriously 
begun the quantitative inquiry they would soon have refined the 
instruments. But the deep concentration on qualitative changes 
blinded them to this aspect of the situation and its vast possibilities 

_just as the discovery of quantitative methods by Galileo and his 

successors had the effect of blinding scientists to the importance 
of moments of crucial change with their qualitative problems. 

In the passage with which Zosimos follows on, we meet again 
the symbol of the Temple for the Universe conceived as a single 
region of living forces; but this temple-cosmos is also the alche¬ 
mic laboratory. 

And that I may not write many things to you, my friend, build a Temple 
of One Stone, like ceruse in appearance, like alabaster, like marble of 
Prokonnesos, with neither beginning nor end in its construction. Let it 
have inside, a spring of pure water glittering like the sun. Note on 
which side is the entry to the temple, and take your sword in hand and 
go in quest of the entry. 

For narrow is the place where the temple opens. Before the entry 
lies a serpent guarding the temple. Seize and sacrifice him. Skin him, 
take his flesh and bones, and separate the parts. Then reunite the 
members with the bones at the temple-entry, make of them a stepping- 
stone, mount on them, and go in. 

You will find there what you seek. For the priest, the man of copper, 
whom you see seated in the spring and gathering his colour, do not 
regard him as a Man of Copper. He has changed his nature’s colour and 
become a Man of Silver. If you wish, after a while you’ll have him as 
a Man of Gold. 

The second Lesson resumes the story. The seven steps are 
those of the planetary ladder and of the Mithraic ordeal-stages; 
Zosimos elsewhere, we recall, named alchemic process the 
Mithraic Mystery. 

Again I wanted to climb the seven steps and look on the seven 
punishments, and, as it came about, on only one of the days did I 
manage the ascent. Retracing my steps, I then went up many times. And 
then on my return I failed to find the way and fell into deep discourage¬ 
ment, unable to see how to get out, and dropped asleep. 

And in my sleep I saw a little man, a barber, wrapt in a royal robe 















35° ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

and a royal dress, standing outside the place of the punishments, and 
he said to me, “Man, what are you doing?” 

And I said to him, “I stand here because I’ve lost my way and don’t 
know what to do.” 

And he said, “Follow me.” 

And I went and followed him. And as I came near the place of punish¬ 
ments I saw the little barber who was guiding me cast into the place of 
punishments and all his body as consumed with fire. 

At the sight I fled and trembled with fear, and I awoke and said to 
myself, “What is it I’ve seen?” And again I reasoned, and then, seeing 
that the little barber was the Man of Copper clothed in red clothes, I 
said, “I’ve understood it well. This is the Man of Copper. He must 
first be cast into the place of punishment.” 

Once more my soul desired to ascend the third step as well. And once 
more I went along the road, and as I neared again the place of punish¬ 
ment, I missed my way. I lost sight of the track and wandered in despair. 
And again in the same way I saw a whitehaired old man of such white¬ 
ness as to dazzle the eyes. His name was Agathodaimon. This white old 
man turned and looked at me for a full hour. And I asked him, “Show 
me the right way.” 

He didn’t turn towards me, but hastened on to follow the right 
route. And going and coming thence, he soon reached the altar. As I 
went up to the altar I saw the whitened old man and he was cast into 
the punishment. O gods of heavenly natures, at once I was wholly 
embraced by the flames. What a terrible story, my brother. For from 
the strength of the punishment his eyes became full of blood. And I 
asked him, “Why do you lie there?” 

But he opened his mouth and said, “I am the Man of Lead and I am 
undergoing intolerable violence.” 

And so I awoke in great fear and sought in myself the reason of this 
fact. I reflected and said, “I clearly understand that thus the lead must 
be cast out. And indeed the Vision is one of the Combination of 
Liquids.” 

Thus ends the Second Lesson. We feel throughout the alchemist 
staring into fire and into the changing metal with all its minute 
and large modifications of texture and state. In a semi-trance 
condition of absorption he draws the picture into himself and is 
himself drawn into the seething mass. Patterns, momentarily 
stark and immediately evanescent, appear, meaningless and 
sharply evocative of meaning. Everything is revealed and under¬ 
stood, and nothing; for the hurry of change is beyond the grasp 
of the lagging mind and what is seen and grasped is a small 
moment of a vast involved whole. In the violent landscape of the 


MORE ON ZOSIMOS 35 1 

fire the human image survives, suffering and indomitable. And 
because the tranced observer is not simply delivering himself up 
purposelessly to the flicker and fury of impressions, but has a 
clear idea of an underlying structure in the chaos of change, he 
finds a direction and a coherence in the images which emerge. 
When, later, he seeks to sum up his experience, he finds that the 
union of man and matter, which was the strongest emotion of 
his trance-absorption, objectifies itself in a series of images, 
drawn from initiation-moments. Those moments are felt to 
express a pattern which is shared by both man and matter, by 
nature in all its forms and manifestations; for in it is defined the 
pure pattern of change. 



Along some such lines I think we can explain the Visions as 
also the imagery of Mating, Gestation, and Birth in Kleopatra s 
discourse. The accounts are not merely inventions of an intellec¬ 
tual kind; they are true poetry. In them the narrator is convinced 
of the deep essential truth of what he says; he feels that he has 
grasped the pattern which tantalisingly eluded him as he watched 
and that he is not at all imposing this pattern on the experience. 
Lesson Three is shorter than the others: 

And again I saw the same divine and sacred bowlshaped altar, and I 
saw a priest in white clothes celebrating those dreadful mysteries, and 
I said, “Who is this?” 

And he replied, “The priest of the Sanctuary. He wants to put blood 
into the bodies, clear the eyes, and raise up the dead.” 













MORE ON ZOSIMOS 


353 


352 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

And so I fell again and slept for another little while, and then, as 
I went up the fourth step, I saw one coming from the East with a 
sword in his hand. And I saw another behind him, who carried a round 
white shining object beautiful to see, of which the name was the 
Meridian of the Sun (or Cinnabar). And as I neared the place of punish¬ 
ments the one with the sword spoke to me: 

“Cut off his head and sacrifice his meat and his muscles in sections 
so that his flesh may first be boiled according to method and that he 
may then experience the punishment.” 

And so, waking once more, I said, “I understand thoroughly that 
these things deal with the Liquids of the Art of Metals.” 

And again the one with the sword said, “You have completed the 
seven steps below.” 

And, at the same time as the casting-out of the load by all liquids 
the other said, “The work is perfected.” 

We can link the imagery of the men of metal with a large number 
of ideas about living or divine statues of the period, as also with 
the idea of the alembic-womb which produces a living being. 
In turn we could look forward to the medieval ideas of the 
homunculus begotten by magical or alchemic means. The homun¬ 
culus already appears in the deeds attributed to arch-magician 
Simon Magus: 

I, I by my power, turning air into water and water again into blood 

and solidifying it into flesh, formed a new human creature—a boy_ 

and produced a much nobler work than God the Creator. For he created 
a man from the earth, but I from the air, a far more difficult matter. 
And again I unmade him and restored him to air, but not until he had 
placed his picture or image in my bedchamber, as a proof and memorial 
of my work. 5 

And an interesting passage by an Arab poet Ibn Shuhaid (a.d. 
992-1035) about a laboratory shows that a practice had grown up 
of constructing statues to represent the men of lead and of gold, 
of primary and of liberated matter, and to set them as guardians 
or presiders over the scene of operations. The poet is writing 
about al-Faradi and telling how he got on bad terms with him. 

I got on friendly terms with him some time ago, at the time we went 
to [live at] al-Zahura, when these places were still standing, not 
obliterated, and brilliant with the family of ‘Amir. We were wont to 
discuss together branches of learning [like] literature, tradition, juris¬ 
prudence, medicine and philosophy. Yet amongst wise people was 
[as useless] as the otiose aw in ‘Amir or the clitoris in a vulva. He 


was cheating and deceiving, without my knowledge, stealing money 
and living on the proceeds. But it became as evident as daylight or 
the sound of a reed-pipe. If he touched full moons they would be 
changed into counterfeit coins; if he handled suns he would cover 
them with eclipses. 

I went to visit him one day, not knowing his character, to rest with 
him and entrust him with some matters. 6 

In so doing, he blundered by chance into the laboratory. Such an 
intruder was liable, it seems, to violent treatment; but the poet, 
realising where he was, bluffed his way out by pretending to be a 
fellow-alchemist: 

Finding his door open and the doorkeeper absent, I went inside and a 
callow boy approached me and said, “How long have we been waiting 
for you!” He walked in front and I followed him into a room blackened 
and covered with smoke like fragments of rain clouds, and smelling 
of the foul stench of arsenic, sulphur, cinnabar, and carcocolla. I 
remembered [the verses] “The day when the sky brings conspicuous 
smoke to cover mankind. This is painful punishment.” I sensed the 
presence of evil and wanted to flee. Then I looked around and behold! 
I saw heaps of coal, apparatus for the extraction of gold, and black and 
yellow statues. 

Then I arrived at a room full of figures like executioners, black and 
with pincers in their hands, standing in rows and grasping hammers. 
When they saw me, they shouted, “This intruder has discovered you. 
Destroy him immediately.” 

I saw death and feared the issue of the business. So I laughed at them 
and said, “You have fallen short of benevolence and missed the path of 
wisdom. Are you so hasty, knowing not whom you seek?” 

[They said, “Who are you?”] 

I replied, “He who took amianthus and powdered it with a pestle, 
and who extracted with the hand of intelligence the essence of things, 
thus announcing the birth of sons to fathers.” 

They said, “[Do you use] fire or water?” 

I answered, “Both, and air also.” 

So they looked at me laughingly and welcomed me, apologising. 
They said, “By God, you were on the point of being devoured and 
carried off by death.” 

I asked, “Where is Abu ‘Abd Allah?” 

And they replied, “Gone off to dilute the fluid of eggs and concen¬ 
trate menstrual blood. His aim is to extract the tincture of the Philo¬ 
sopher’s Stone.” 

I said, “Is it a new fluid or an old?” 

And they shouted, “Ah! here is an expert.” 














354 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 


MORE ON ZOSIMOS 


355 


Then I bore myself pleasantly till I left, my feet flying under me. 
God in his mercy had kept my blood inside and rescued me from the 
hands of death. 

Apart from the mention of the Black and Yellow Statues, this 
passage has a striking picture of a laboratory of the period, which 
was certainly on a more ambitious scale than anything we can 
imagine in the period of Zosimos. The pincers and hammers 
suggest some breaking-up or treatment of ore and minerals as 
distinct from purely chemical work. What may have been a 
laboratory of the 6th-yth centuries has been found to the south¬ 
west of Siut in Egypt, at the foot of the mountain, in a Moslem 
cemetary established amid an ancient nekropolis. About 12 to 13 
metres deep was a funerary chamber belonging to a deep burial- 
place already robbed. This led into a room serving as a laboratory 
as shown by the smoke grimed on the walls. There was a bronze 
furnace, a bronze door (about 35 m. high) coming from a larger 
oven, about fifty spouted vases of bronze, each in a sort of trun¬ 
cated cone also of bronze—the upper hole being the larger one. 
There were also seven basins of alabaster, a rounded Old-King¬ 
dom vase of diorite or green jasper, spoons of alabaster, objects 
in base gold (weighing 96 dirhems) composed of pieces that had 
the look of large rolled-up leaves, and a twisted bent mummy-mask. 
These latter objects seem to have been prepared for casting. The 
room must have been the work-place of an alchemist or forger. 7 

Finally, with regard to the Visions we may note how the whole 
idea of a series of transformations harmonises with the ancient 
Egyptian funerary ritual in which the dead man changes into 
animal and other forms. The ultimate basis of these ideas lies in 
the shamanist death-ritual in which the performer, in a state of 
semi-possession, mimed the various dangers, encounters, ordeals 
of the dead man on his way to a secure place in the spirit-world. 
At the Egyptian stage the impromptu performance of the shaman 
has given way to a carefully codified system of magic; but the 
essence is the same. In the Saite recension of a chapter (XX) of 
The Hook of the Dead the rubric reads: 

If this chapter be recited regularly and always by a man who has 
purified himself in water of natron, he will come forth by day after 
he has come into port [is dead] and he will perform all the transforma¬ 
tions which his heart will dictate, and he will come forth from the 
fire. 8 


Note that the transformations are imagined as the result of a 
passage through fire. One transformation is into a hawk of gold. 

I have risen, I have risen like the mighty hawk [of gold] that comes 
forth from his egg. I fly and I alight like the hawk which has a back 4 
cubits wide and whose wings are like the mother-of-emerald of the 
south. I have come from the interior of the Sekhet boat, and my heart 
has been brought to me from the mountain of the east. I have alighted 
upon the Afet boat, and those who were dwelling in their companies 
have been brought to me, and they bowed low in paying homage to 
me and in saluting me with cries of joy. 

I have risen and I have gathered myself together like the beautiful 
Hawk of Gold which has the head of a Bennu bird [Phoenix], and Re 
enters in day by day to hear my words. I have taken my seat among 
those firstborn gods of Nut. 

There is thus a direct line of tradition from the shamanist initia¬ 
tion-ritual of sky-ascent and underworld-descent and the alchemic 
initiation-ritual of god-revelation and transformations in body- 
spirit. The alchemic system has lifted the ideas and images on to a 
new level and integrated them in a complex of technological and 
philosophical positions which give them a new significance; but 

the link is none the less real and illuminating. 

■* 

Zosimos does not seem to have introduced any radical new 
methods or theories. We may take his work to have consisted 
mainly in an attempt to bring together, clarify, codify, and rationa¬ 
lise what he considered to be the best elements in all the previous 
ideas and experiments. At the same time, as we saw, he widened 
the whole horizon by drawing on Gnostic and philosophic systems 
of his world when he felt that those systems helped in illuminating 
the alchemic position. Alchemy in its various ramifications had 
already had much effect on the general world of thought, so that 
to some extent Zosimos was thus reclaiming for his art ideas 
which had ultimately originated from it. 

In the Visions he mentions Agathodaimon. His role there is 
not quite clear. He appears after the little barber is recognised as 
the Man of Copper, and leads the way to the altar-apparatus 
where he turns into the Man of Lead. Zosimos thus seems to link 
Agathodaimon with copper, which, if our sources are at all 
complete, is correct; but since Agathodaimon ignored lead, 
Zosimos either shows ignorance on this point or else deliberately 
makes the connection as a sort of refutation or attack on the 










356 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Harran-position. The lead-phase, he insists, is necessary. Indeed, 
if we are right in taking his Omega to belong to Kronos in a 
system of correspondences linking letters, planets and metals, 
then Omega here may well be a synonym for Lead. The associa¬ 
tion of metals and planets was never rigidly systematised, but 
lead usually went to Kronos; such a heavy, dull metal was 
naturally joined with the slowest-moving planet. The only other 
claimant for lead was Osiris, whose sole similarity to Kronos lay 
in his mutilations. Osiris was at times identified with the water 
into which he died and from which he was revived, the water of 
death and resurrection-fertility; and as water he may have been 
associated with lead in its easy fusibility. His Tomb was connected 
with mercury. Olympiodoros compares chemia to the Tomb of 
Osiris in which the god’s members were hidden though his face 
was shown (i.e. the body mummified in its coffin-case ). 9 However, 
Kronos was the main deity identified with lead. So in a treatise 
on Omega-Kronos-Lead Zosimos would be expressing his 
belief that in lead was the basic substance on which the alchemist 
must build, creating his primary matter and then going up the 
scale. Agathodaimon was symbolically forced to recognise this 
point by being plunged into the lead-death in person. 

The Harran school, as well as taking copper as the basic metal, 
refused to allow any other substances than minerals in their 
experiments. In opposition the school of Bolos-Ostanes dis¬ 
covered the use of sal-ammoniac distilled from organic substances 
such as eggs: which must have given a strong impulsion to the 
imagery of the cosmic or seminal egg. We seem to distinguish 
here a point of conscious conflict between Zosimos and the 
Harran school, which makes all the more likely that his use of 
Agathodaimon as the Lead-Man was polemical. He seems to have 
found it hard not to believe that Agathodaimon was speaking 
figuratively and that by the Stone he actually meant urine or 
dung, from which sal-ammoniac could be got. In an Arabic 
translation of one of the treatises to Theosebeia he says, “In my 
opinion it [the Stone] is Sal-Ammoniac .” 10 Al-Razi remarks that 
as eggs could be got for a small sum, the saying of Demokritos 
about a Stone not a Stone was confirmed. 

Zosimos then for all the extensiveness of his work was no mere 
compiler. He had definite ideas about both the correct procedures 
and methods, and the true theory. He rejected the attitude that 
only minerals should be involved in transmutation, and he 


MORE ON ZOSIMOS 357 

denounced the empirical school that had grown up in Egypt. 
But though he clearly had a strong nationalist feeling, he admired 
and used the work of Maria the Jewess. In him the alchemy of the 
ancient world reached its height. His insistence on the unity of 
theory and practice does not seem to have long survived him. 
The further history of Greek alchemy is almost wholly one of 
repetition and of rhetorical exploitation of the previous gains, 
with a weakening grasp of practice . 11 



66. Scorpion-goddess Serquet in her serpent-boat propelled by a 

crocodile 















*7 

The Later Greek Alchemists 


The apex of Greek alchemy was reached with Zosimos: the fullest 
development of combined theory and practice. No doubt a 
certain amount of practical work was done after his period and 
various recipes added to the repertory; but it seems clear that 
nothing of any importance was discovered and no extension of 
theory made. More and more the exponents turned to glorifica¬ 
tions of the art in a lofty rhetoric in which the paradoxes and 
antitheses of the alchemic idiom were exploited for their own sake. 
The practical side shifted more to Syria. However, to complete 
our picture we had better glance at the names that now come up. 

We have seen abundantly how one side of alchemy linked with 
the many esoteric or mystery cults of the epoch, with the whole 
vast development of magic and theurgy. In those cults and rites 
there had been uttered the enormous despair of the masses of the 
Hellenistic and Roman periods, the desperate sense of being 
cornered in a hopeless situation, together with an endlessly 
revived attempt to break through into a new life, whether through 
the lonely incantations of the magician, the resistances of isolated 
groups such as the Gnostics, or the large-scale struggle to affirm 
a total opposition to the “World” (the existing State-form, the 
cash-nexus, and all the forms of class-division) in a creed like 
early Christianity. 

It is indeed of interest to note the several points of likeness in 
that creed and in the alchemic outlook. There were many aspects 
of the secret cult among early Christians. Origen was still able to 
declare to Celsus, Then, and not till then, we invite them to our 
mysteries, \teletai \; for we speak wisdom among the perfect 
[teleioi, initiated].” He echoed what Paul had said, “But we speak 
God’s wisdom in mystery, the concealed wisdom, which God 
ordained before the Aions into our glory, which none of the 
Archons of this Aion [Rulers of this Period] knew; for if they had 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 359 

known, they had not crucified the lord of glory.” Among the 
Gnostics, the perfect or initiated formed a higher group, of whom 
much was said by the Christian attackers of heretics. Mark states, 
“Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto 
them that are without, all things are done in parables: that seeing 
they may see and not perceive.” Matthew certainly referred to 
secret instruction: “Nought is covered that shall not be revealed, 
and hidden that shall not be known. What I tell you in the dark¬ 
ness, speak you in the light; and what you hear in the ear, pro¬ 
claim from the housetops.” 1 

We seem to hear there the tones of triumph of the section that 
wanted to break through the original secret cult and proclaim 
its message abroad. 

Further, Christians developed the Last Supper into an act of 
communion in which ordinary substances, bread and wine, were 
thought to be transmuted, by the effects of ritual speech and action, 
into divine substances, the actual flesh of the Saviour, which the 
worshipper consumed. Behind such a rite was a long series of 
communions in religions of the mystery-type, which gave the 
devotee the conviction of becoming one with the god, a Bacchos 
of Bacchos, and so on, and which went back in origin to the 
tribal ceremonies of eating the totem (which was of one flesh 
with the tribe) on special occasions. But in the Christian eucharist 
the primitive kind of communion-meal was made far more precise 
in its idiom: the substances were conceived as undergoing a 
process of transformation. Here we see a clear imprint of the 
alchemic idea in its elixir-form.The term eucharist seems estab¬ 
lished by the time of the Didache, which implies it as a sacrifice. 
St Ignatios calls the eucharist “the breaking of one bread, which 
is the medicine of immortality, the antidote against dying”. 
The idiom is exactly that of Kleopatra in her Discourse, where she 
speaks of the medicine of life. Again we are told, “Those who 
deny the gift of God, by their disputing come to death. But it 
would be far better for them to keep the agape [the love-feast] so 
that they may rise again.” 2 The eucharist was an immortalising 
pharmakon. God’s power was thought to take up its dwelling 
in the consumer of Christ’s body; hence the phrase, “We thank 
you that you are Mighty.” Jesus became in the patristic tradition 
the Great Doctor, Our Great Doctor. “He treats them by the 
process of a sublime medicine.” 3 
















360 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

Following Zosimos in the later 4th century there seem to have 
come several lesser figures such as Pelagios, Dioskoros, Synesios. 
Pelagios the Ancient cites Zosimos as well as the dictum about 
wheat producing wheat, gold producing gold. Dioskoros seems 
to have been a priest of the great temple of Sarapis at Alexandreia; 
Synesios addressed to him his Commentary on Demokritos. 4 
This Synesios has been identified with the Neoplatonic friend of 
the astronomer Hypatia, who finally became bishop of Ptolemais 
in Kyrenaika. If the identification is correct, Synesios was an alche¬ 
mist in his youthful days; for he was born about 365-70 and the 
Sarapieion was destroyed in 390—though it is barely possible that 
he was wridng to a man who had been a priest of the temple in 
the past and that he deliberately ignored the destruction. He was in 
fact an eclectic in his beliefs and had his bishopric thrust on him not 
long before 409; he accepted it rather as a social duty than because 
of any religious urge. “Philosophy is all I am equal to,” he said in 
dismay. He was certainly interested in the science of his period. 
A letter of his to Hypatia has the first known reference to an 
areameter; he wrote a treatise on dream-interpretation—on the 
alchemic side we may recall the treatise at the beginning of the 
St Mark manuscript as well as the recipes for procuring dreams in 
the Leyden Papyrus. In On Providence he tells an historical tale of 
administrative oppression and the fall of Gainas in terms of 
Egyptian mythology. He sets out the doctrine of pneuma and 
universal sympathies in arguing for the legitimacy of divination; 
and in Dion he puts the prophets Hermes and Zoroaster beside 
the Christian hermits Amous and Antonios as representing the 
supreme heights of wisdom. His hymns are full of Neoplatonic 
and Gnostic touches; he cries in true alchemic idiom, “You are 
father, you are mother, you are male, you are female, you are 
voice and you are silence, you are the nature producing nature.” 5 

There is thus nothing in the character of the man that precludes 
a certain dabbling in alchemy. But apart from the difficulty about 
the Sarapieion, the work of the alchemist Synesios is dry in 
style, quite lacking the sophisticated elegance of Synesios of 
Ptolemais. It also lacks his careful modesty. In the dialogue the 
author sets out his opinions authoritatively, with his audience, a 
priest, grovelling in admiration. “You have excellently settled 
the problem, philosopher.” “You have spoken well.” 6 We may 
then conclude it is unlikely that he was our historical figure. 
Another possible claimant for the dialogue is the Synesios of 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 361 

Philadelphia, a Lydian, His son Androkleides taught at the time 
of Porphyrios, who attacked him as one of the empodoi technologoi — 
a difficult phrase: empodos means “obstructive, causing difficulties” 
and technologos means a “writer on the art of rhetoric, one who lays 
down the rules”. Presumably the Souda, from which the phrase 
comes, meant that he was a severe over-systematiser. As profes¬ 
sions often went from father to son, the father Synesios was most 
likely also a rhetorician of some kind; and the connection of the 
son with Porphyrios suggests that the family lived in Egypt. 
However, the details are too meagre to lead to any conclusion. 7 

With the 5th century we come to Olympiodoros. In this case 
there seems no doubt that the alchemist was a known literary 
figure, who wrote a history of his own times. A native of Thebes 
in Egypt, he took part in an embassy to Attila under Honorius 
in 412; travelled among the Blemmyes in South Egypt and visited 
the priests of Isis at Philai, where pagan survivals persisted till 
562. Photios called him poietes, poet in the original sense of maker 
—here alchemic operator; poiesis was a synonym for the great 
work. To him was attributed Olympiodoros the Philosopher to 
Petasios King of Armenia on the Divine and Sacred Art —which is 
also called in other manuscripts. Commentary on the Book of Energy 
of Zosimos and on the Sayings of Hermes and the Philosophers. The work 
is worth citing at some length to show the ruminative tone, with 
its effort to think back over the whole scene of Greek philosophy 
and to find just where alchemy came in and developed out of the 
main body of thought. 8 

Fire is the primary agent, that of the whole art. It is the first of the 
four elements. Indeed the enigmatic language of the ancients as to the 
four elements refers to the art. Let your virtue examine with care 
the Books of Demokritos on the four elements. It’s a matter of Physics. 
He speaks sometimes of gentle fire, sometimes of violent fire, and of 
charcoal and all that has need of fire. Then of air, of all that derives 
from air, animals that live in the air. Likewise of water, of the bile of 
fishes, of all that’s prepared with fishes and water. Again he speaks of 
earth and of what is attached to it, salts, metals, plants. He separates 
and classifies each of these objects, according to colour, specific 
characteristics and sex, male or female. Knowing that, all the ancients 
veiled the art under multiplicity of words. 

The art indeed has complete need of these data; without them nothing 
is sure. Demokritos has said we can constitute nothing without them. 
Know then that I have written as well as my strength allowed, being 
feeble not only in discourse but also in spirit. And I ask you for your 












362 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

prayers to deter divine justice from being wrathful against me for 
having the boldness to write this work, and to bring it to be propitious 
to me in all ways. 

The writings of the Egyptians, their poesies, their doctrines, the 
oracle of the daimons, the exposition of the prophets, all treat the 
same subject. . . 

Prove now your sagacity. Many names have been used for the 
Divine Water. That Water denotes what one seeks, and one has hidden 
the object of the quest under the name Divine Water. I am going to 
set out for you a little argument. Listen, you in possession of every 
virtue; for I know the torch of your thought and the tutelary good. I 
want to set before your eyes the spirit of the ancients. Philosophers, 
they held to its language and came to the art by way of wisdom, 
without harming philosophy in the least; they have all written clearly! 
In that they have been false to their oath; for their writings deal with 
doctrine and not with practical works. 

In what follows it must be remembered that the Greek word 
arche means both “beginning” and “principle”, since the quest 
for cosmic origins in the Ionian philosophers had involved a 
quest for the first element or substance from which things arose; 
this element was the principle of the cosmos. 9 

Some of the natural philosophers bring back the argument on the 
elements to the arche, in view of the fact that archai are something more 
general than the elements. Indeed the first principle resumes the whole 
of the art. Thus Agathodaimon, placing the arche in the end and the 
end in the arche, wants it to be the serpent Ouroboros . . . That is 
evident, O initiated . . . 

Agathodaimon, what is he? Some hold he is an ancient, one of 
the oldest persons who occupied themselves with philosophy in 
Egypt- Others have called him the Heavens—perhaps because the 
serpent is the image of the universe. Indeed certain Egyptian hiero- 
glyphics, wanting to trace the world on obelisks or express it in sacred 
characters, show the serpent Ouroboros. His body is constellated with 
stars. That is, I ve been told, because he is the arche . Such is the view 
set out in The Book of Chemia, where his figure is drawn. 

I see now how it happens that the arche is something more universal 
than the elements. Let s state what is for us an element and at the same 
time what is the arche. 

The four elements are the principle of the body; but every principle 
is not therefore an element. Indeed the Divine, the Egg, the Inter¬ 
mediary, the Atoms are for certain persons the archai of things; but 
these are not elements. 

Let s seek then, according to certain signs, what is the principle of 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 3^3 

things. Is it one or multiple? Is it unique, immobile, infinite, or 
determined? Are there several archai. If there are several archai, the 
same questions come up. Are they immobile, determined, infinite? 

He then begins a catalogue of the early philosophers with their 
views on arche, origin and principle. We need not discuss here 
how right or wrong he is in the details of his assessment. What is 
striking is the dismissal of the notion of some immobile substance 
or god as the ultimate basis, though immobility or unchangeability 
had been regarded as the most desirable and noble condition that 
could be imagined by so many thinkers, early or late. Plato’s 
Ideas were set outside the world of change or motion; Aristotle s 
God was the great Unmoved and there was circular movement 
but no change in the spheres above the moon in his universe. 
However, against the whole metaphysical current of ancient 
thought, Olympiodoros, speaking for the alchemists, declares that 
reality consists of “movement and rest”—that is, these united 
opposites make up the real world. We see then to some extent 
why the alchemist tradition attached itself to Demokritos, the 
outstanding example among those thinkers of whom we saw 
Aristotle protesting angrily, “They say there is always movement. 



67. Later alchemic imagery: the Green Lion devouring the Sun (from 
The Rosary of Philosophers) 










364 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

The ancients admired one principle of all things, unique, immobile, 
and infinite. Thales of Miletos speaks of the Egg [a confusion or perhaps 
a deliberate play on words here between egg, don, and being, on]. It’s 
a question of the divine water and of gold: it’s a principle, beautiful, 
immobile. It’s exempt from all apparent movement, and more, it is 
infinite, endowed with infinite power, and no one can number its 
powers. 

Parmenides also takes for principle the divine, unique principle, 
immobile with determined power; it is, he says, immobile, and the 
energy that derives from it is determinate. 

We note that Thales of Miletos, considering the existence of God, 
calls him infinite and endowed with infinite power; God is endowed 
with an infinite power. Parmenides says that for his productions God 
has only a determinate power; indeed it is throughout clear that what 
God produces corresponds to a limited power. Perishable thin g.; 
correspond to a limited power—though not so intellectual things. 

These two men, I mean Thales and Parmenides, seem to be rejected 
by Aristode from the band of natural philosophers. Indeed they are 
theologians concerned with questions alien to physics and they attach 
themselves to [concepts of] immobility. But all physical things move. 
Nature is the principle of movement and rest. 

He then goes on to discuss the ideas held by the early thinkers 
about the arche as original and fundamental substance, stressing 
the aspect of movement. 

Thales admitted water as an unique, determined arche of things since 
it is fecund and plastic: fecund as giving birth to fish, plastic as taking 
any form one wants to give it. It takes the form of any vase in which 
it’s put, whether the vase is polished, terracotta, triangular, quad¬ 
rangular, or what you like. This arche is mobile. Water indeed moves; 
it is determinate and not eternal. 

Diogenes held that the arche is air, which is rich and fecund: it 
engenders birds. And it shows itself plastic, taking any form it is given. 
But it is one, mobile, and not eternal. 

■Herakleitos and Hippasos have taken fire as the arche of all things, 
since it’s the active element of all things. An arche indeed should be 
the source of the activity of things issued from it. As some say, fire 
is also fecund, since animals are born in warmth. 

As for the earth, no one has made an arche of it except Xenophanes 
of Kolophon. As it is not fecund, no one has made an element of it. 
And he who is in possession of every virtue [the interlocutor here] 
remarks that earth is not signalled as an element by philosophers, since 
it isn’t fecund. Indeed Hermes associates the idea of earth with that 
of the unimpregnated virgin. 10 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 365 

Anaximenes declares that arche of things, infinite and mobile, is air. 
He argues thus: air is the neighbour of the incorporeal and we enjoy 
its efflux. It must be infinite as it produces without losing anything. 

Anaximandros says the arche is the Intermediary: that which 
denotes moist vapour and smoke; the moist vapour is intermediary 
between fire and earth; in brief it is the intermediate between the hot 
and the moist. Smoke is intermediate between hot and dry. 

Let’s come to the opinion of each ancient and see how he seeks to 
direct his teaching according to his viewpoint. Here and there an 
omission is to be found as the result of the complexity of the discourses. 

And now let’s recapitulate by groups and show how our philo¬ 
sophers, borrowing from those others their point of departure, have 
built up our Art of Nature. 

Zosimos, crown of philosophers, whose language has the abundance 
of Ocean, the new Divine one, follows in general Melissos on the art 
and says that the art is one like God. That is what he sets out to Theo- 
sebeia in countless places, and what he says is true. 

Here he repeats the advice which we saw Zosimos gives to his 
sister: words of pantheist quietism, which reflect the deep patience 
and acceptance of reality that has to go with the active quest into 
the principles of natural process. Taken together with the argu¬ 
ments of Zosimos, these statements of Olympiodoros bring out 
clearly the points where the alchemists differed from all other 
ancient thinkers. They alone combined an essentially materialist 
outlook with a deep faith in the creative force, the formative 
pattern, working out in natural process, of which they saw man a 
part—and then went on to seek in a laboratory, in scientific 
experiment, for the precise ways in which the force, the living 
pattern, expressed itself. The fantasy-aspects of their thought 
cannot detract from the essential drive and purpose in their work, 
cannot obscure the great new synthesis at which they were arriv¬ 
ing. The early Stoics and Epikoureans were inspired by some¬ 
thing of the same sort of pantheist materialism, but they could 
not make the decisive step from trying to evolve the laws of life 
and matter out of their minds alone, the step into active experi¬ 
mental verification. 

He exhorts us to seek our refuge in the one God. He speaks thus to 
the woman philosopher. Remain seated at your hearth, recognising 
that there is one god and one art. Do not agitate yourself this way and 
that in seeking for another God. God himself will come to you, he 
who is everywhere and who is not confined in a lowermost space like 
the daimon. Motionless of body, immobilise also your passions. And 











366 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

thus, having corrected yourself by your own action, summon the deity 
and it will come truly to you, it which is everywhere. And when you 
have recognised yourself, then you’ll recognise also him who is really 
God. Operating in this way, you’ll obtain the genuine and natural 
tinctures, spitting on matter. 

Similarly Chymes follows Parmenides and declares: One is All, by 
it All is, for if it did not contain All, All would be Nothing. 

The theologians speak on divine matters as the natural philosophers 
on matter. 11 

Agathodaimon, inclined towards Anaximenes, sees the absolute in 
air. Anaximandros said that this absolute was the intermediate which 
is moist vapour and smoke. For Agathodaimon it is altogether sub¬ 
limated vapour \aithak, often used for mercury in a volatile state]. 
Zosimos and most of the others have followed this opinion, when 
they constructed the philosophy of our art. 

Hermes also speaks of smoke in connection with magnesia. Separate 
them, he says, in front of the furnace. . . . The smoke of the magnesia 
being white, whitens bodies. Smoke is intermediate between hot and 
dry, and here is placed the sublimated vapour and that that results 
from it. Moist vapour is intermediate between the hot and the moist; 
it denoted the sublimated moist vapours, those that alembics and their 
like distil. 

As well as Hermes, Agathodaimon, and Zosimos, he names Maria 
the Jewess and Synesios. Though he refers to the authority of the 
Bible, which he seems to know very little, he has nothing notice¬ 
ably Christian about his work, whereas he refers to the oracles 
of Apollo and those of the lesser daimones, invokes the Muses, and 
mentions the inscriptions in the temple of Isis. The Tomb of 
Osiris is his image of alchemy. He seems then to be at heart a 
pagan, cherishing the Egyptian tradition. He repeats the old tale 
of gold being engendered in the land of Ethiopia. “There a kind 
of ant extracts the gold and brings it up to the daylight and 
delights in it.” 12 He cites the Ptolemaic libraries and uses Egyptian 
names for months, Mecheir and Mesore, which he relates to the 
four-month systems of summer and winter. He also repeats 
Zosimos on the role of Egyptian kings. 13 

He is still interested in practical work. He speaks of maceration, 
washing, roasting of minerals, and distinguishes volatile and 
fixed bodies: 

The ancients admit three tinctures. The first is that which promptly 
disappears [volatilises], like sulphur and arsenic [not in the literal 
sense]. The second is that which fades out slowly, like sulphurous 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 3^7 

materials. The third, that which does not fade at all: these are the 
metals, the stones, and the earth. The first tincture, made with arsenic, 
tints copper with white. Arsenic is a kind of sulphur that quickly 
volatilises; all that is like arsenic grows volatile through fire and is 
called sulphurous matter. 11 

He adds, “Mercury whitens all, draws out the souls of all, changes 
colour, and survives.” 

Olympiodoros is intelligent, but lacks the fervour of Maria and 
Zosimos. The growth of Christianity in the 4th and 5 th century 
led to considerable disorders and confusions. Many philosophers 
were murdered. We saw how Hypatia fell early a victim to the 
monks. Alchemy, with its deep pagan roots visible in Zosimos 
and Olympiodoros, must have been highly suspect, and many of 
its practitioners must have suffered death or persecution. I he 
atmosphere of the period is powerfully brought out in an account 
written in Boharean, with the inscription, Bnkomion [_ panegyric] 
mitten by our Patriarch, our Holy Archbishop of Alexandria, Saint 
Dioskoros. (Dioskoros we have met in relation with Synesios as 
the name of a priest of Sarapis. In a demotic spell-book we find 
it cited as a name of power, “Pronounce this name on the prow 
of a boat when it is going to sink to the bottom, and because of the 
names of Dioskoros which are there, it will be saved.”) 15 There 
was an Egyptian martyr Dioskoros, commemorated on 18 May, 
another killed at Alexandreia under Decius and commemorated 
on 14 December: the Patriarch was dated 454 and commemorated 
on both 4 September and 14 October. 16 

To the west of the water there was a town where dwelt the servants 
of the idol named Kothos. The idol was set up in the niche of a house, 
and when they crossed the doorway of the house, they bowed their 

heads before it and worshipped it. 

The town’s priests arrived and told their Father all that the pagans 
did to them: that they tried to catch little Christian children as sacri¬ 
fices for their god Kothos; they laid snares for them, and when they d 
got once hold of them, they maltreated them, they sought out Christian 
children to sacrifice on the altar of their gods. Also, when caught, 
jailed, and interrogated, they had confessed without being put to the 
torture- “Yes we make little Christian children come, we lure them 
with gifts of bits of bread and a handful of food, and then we shut 
them up in hidden places so that no one outside can hear their voices. 
Then we kill them, we pour their blood on the altar, we take their gut 
and string it like cords on our guitars, and we play music in honour 








THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 


368 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

of our gods. We bum their bodies and spread the ashes on places 
where we know treasures are buried, and we take up as much of them 
as we wish.” 

However the arrested persons have had recourse to ways of corrup¬ 
tion and been saved, because the chiefs of this district are greedy for 
money. 



68 . The Alchemical Assumption (from The Rosary ) 

There was, of course, no human sacrifice in Egypt, and it is more 
than unlikely that the pagans would have reverted to such prac¬ 
tices when they were under special scrutiny and attack. The 
Christians themselves had earlier been accused of cannibalism and 
incest; and they later were to accuse Jews of the very same 
villainies as they now laid at the doors of the pagans. 

When the holy bishop, the Apa Makar, heard this from his priests, 
he rose and went with them. We set out with him, I and two men of 
high rank; and two priests went with us. When we had traversed some 
five miles on the lower part of their territory, we saw their temple. 
My father went that way, but the two priests cried, “Father, let’s go 
away so that they won’t kill us.” 

He replied, “As our saviour lives, even if they kill me, I won’t give 
way till I enter here.” And he went to the temple-door. 

Then the demon who dwelt by the door and the idol Kothos cried 


369 

out, “Go and hunt Makarios out of Tkou.” Fear gripped us when we 
heard his voice. If the fear had held us a moment more, we’d have gone 
away, we’d not have returned there, nor should we have come back 
to our homes to see you. 

When the pagan priests heard that, they came out of the door with 
arms, javelins and axes in their hands; and the women climbed on the 
temple-roof to throw stones at us. They shouted at Makarios, 
“Makarios, you are the criminal of Tkou. Why have you come and 
what do you want here? Our gods have warned us of your hate. Go 
back to your own place. What have you to do with us?” 

The saint replied, “If I have nothing to do with you, what have you 
to do with the children of Christians that you sacrifice to the idols?” 

They said, “It isn’t true.” 

The saint then said, “Won’t you let me enter and see the temple?” 

They answered, “Come in.” 

However the two priests were scared and didn’t enter. 

Then twenty men rose up, closed the doors behind us, and prepared 
to kill us. We were only four, and they shouted at us, “Your life is 
finished today. The moment of your death is upon you.” 

At once they threw themselves on my Father, seized him first as a 
spotless lamb, and then us three. The pagans rose up and set us as 
offerings on the altar of their god Kothos, and the women rejoiced, 
crying, “Let us glorify our god today with these Christian criminals.” 

However the chief among them said, “We must refer the matter to 
our highpriest before killing them and we must call him here about the 
sacrifice to our god Kothos.” 

The others agreed with him. Homeros was the name of their high¬ 
priest. They sent a man out to find him. I said to my Father, “You are 
seated here without praying for our preservation. Come, the hour of 
our death is here.” 

My Father answered, “Don’t be afraid, my son Tonoution. Christ 
will aid us.” 

And at those very words the holy Apa Besa knocked on the door; 
and as no one answered, he cried out, “Great all-powerful God who 
drew Peter out of prison, unfettering his hands and feet and making the 
door open before him, so that the guards didn’t hold him back and 
the soldiers watching at the door were asleep and the angel of the 
Lord followed and led him out by the door of iron giving access to 
the town—make this temple open of its own accord.” At that instant 
the temple-door opened and the holy saint Besa entered with monks 
to the number of forty. 

When they entered, the pagans were scared. They were like soulless 
stones. We were at once freed from our bonds and the holy Apa Besa 
said to my Father, “Let us both get to work. You make a fire and I’ll 
pray—or you pray and I’ll make a fire.” 








37 1 


37° ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

My Father replied, “No, let us stand up together, one by the other, 
let’s pray together that fire descends and burns this temple.” 

And standing there the two prayed until a voice from on high was 
heard, “Save yourselves by the temple-door.” 

Before we had even turned our heads, a great wall of fire surrounded 
the whole temple and its walls crumbled away and the fire consumed 
it all right down to the foundations. My Father cursed the temple, 
saying, “Let no tree yielding shade ever grow in this place. Let it - 
become the dwelling-place of wildbeasts and reptiles of the earth.” 

Then a foul demon entered flying into a man, who ran off into the 
town, howling, “Let all the pagans flee. Besa and Makarios of Tku are 
there.” 

My Father then met Homeros, their leading man, on the road. He 
was the highpriest and my Father knew in his heart that he was the 
chief they’d sent for. He said, “When they prepared to slit our throats 
and kill us, why didn’t you come to glorify your god Kothos?” 

He answered, “You’re not a fit sacrifice for our god, you’re an old 
man.” 

Then my Father made a sign to the Brethren. “Seize and bind him .” 

And this noisome priest cried, “Great god Kothos, supreme 
sovereign of the airs, brother of Apollo, save me. I’m your highpriest.” 

My Father called to him, “I’m going to burn you alive, you and 
your god Kothos.” 

Then they went on their way, they went into the town and a crowd 
of orthodox followed them. He bade them make a fire. They threw 
Homeros in and burned him up together with the idols found in his 
house. Several surviving pagans accepted baptism and became 
Christians. The others refused, took their belongings and threw them 
in the river and the lakes, then went off with their idols into the desert. 
We counted the idols destroyed on this occasion and found their 
number to be 306. In the houses of the fugitives the Christians were 
established. 

Apart from the miracle of fire, this account may be taken as a 
realistic version of what happened again and again. Some 
Christians forced their way into a temple, were resisted, called 
up the monks, and proceeded to smash the temples and murder 
the pagans. A character like Homeros might well have been a 
learned man, a philosopher, an alchemist. 

Alchemy tended to shift more to the north. We saw in Chapter 
III how Aeineias of Gaza in the later 5 th century knew a group of 
alchemist artisans. The art developed in Syria, with part of its 
writings in Aramaic, and it is significant that Greek Fire was 
effectively worked out in this area. 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 

The Greek alchemists who carried on writing dealt now in 
compiling extracts from the masters, each a short chapter; the 
comprehensive view, which sought to link theory and practice, 
was fading out. Soon even the anthologies began to break up, 
with loss of the names that guaranteed the worth of a recipe. 
The manuscript of St Mark, the oldest we have, is fairly faithful, 
but has suffered many mishaps, leaves in the wrong places and 
gaps in the texts. The next in age, Paris 2325, is purely practical 
and mentions as authors only Demokritos, Synesios, Stephanos— 
whereas St Mark still kept a considerable place for theory. In 
Paris 2327 the many errors make it seem the work, not so much of 
a professional scribe, as of a practising alchemist, who paid atten¬ 
tion to the recipes but was not much interested in the general state¬ 
ments. We can perhaps make out three types of manuscript that 
have come down: (a) texts like that of St Mark which have already 
had a long development behind them, but maintain a strong 
theoretical interest and appear as a collection of doctrinal works 
with names of authors attached—the items set out in an order 
which has its arbitrary aspect but which still does not suffer 
unduly from the predilections of the compiler; (b) practical works 
mostly of anonymous recipes, with the signed sections kept down 
to a minimum; (c) composite collections which include doctrinal 
works but without any system and with an aimless irruption of 
recipes—the copyist seems to put in anything he thinks relevant 
to the alchemic art. 17 

In due time alchemy became a pursuit also of Christians. We 
have an anonymous writer called The Christian, who seems a 
Byzantine monk of the early 6th century, acquainted with 
Gnosticism. He speaks of the unquenchable source of Water in 
the midst of Paradise. “The divine oracle says: Let us make man 
.. . and make male and female.” He has learning and mentions 
the shadow of the cone of the earth which reaches to the sphere 
of Mercury; cites, in the usual eclectic way, Aratos and Hesiod, 
the Bible and Hermes, as well as Agathodaimon, Demokritos, 
Petesis, Zosimos; sets out in philosophic language the varieties 
of gold-making according to kind and species; reproduces the 
geometric concept of the elements from the Pythagoreans and 
Platonists; only his first paragraph is original. Near the end of 
his treatise he abridges Zosimos’ definition: “Such is the image 
of the world, famed in ancient writings, the mystic science of 
Egyptian hierograms.” Then he turns to the substantial natures. 










373 


572 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

showing a gnostic and theological bent of mind. 18 His diction is 
like that of Olympiodoros. 

He dedicated his work to Sergios, who may be Sergios Resain- 
ensis. The latter lived in Alexandreia in the early 6th century and 
translated into Syrian the Greek medical and philosophical writers. 

With Stephanos we reach the culmination of the rhetorical 
tradition, in which both theory and practice are exploited for the 
outpouring of flowery and exalted encomia of the sacred art. 
He was a philosopher and public professor at Alexandreia under 
Heraklios, 610-41. He lectured on Plato and Aristotle, on 
geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music—leaving a commentary 
on Aristotle and an astronomical work, Apotelesmatike Pragma- 
teia, as well as his alchemic treatise, which consists of nine 
Praxeis or Lessons, of which the last is dedicated to Heraklios 
in extravagantly adulatory terms. Attempts have been made to 
argue that the treatise is of the 9th century and not by Stephanos; 
that public lectures on alchemy were against the law. But this 
latter point falls down. Alchemy had now emerged into the open— 
at least as a recognised art, even if the operators still carried on a 
secret tradition. True, the style of the treatise is different from that 
of Stephanos’ other works, but it is free from the barbarisms that 
crop up in the later alchemic texts, and there are many references 
to mathematics, astronomy and music—suggesting the wide 
interests of the philosopher, who might well feel called on to use 
a specific kind of idiom, declamatory and excited, for expounding 
the mysterious art. Further, the treatise was known to the 
Anonymous Philosopher, who does not seem as late as the 9th 
century, and is cited in the Kitab (probably 850). 19 

Stephanos has read widely and grasped the main ideas of 
alchemy; but he quite lacks the incisive grip of Zosimos. A Chris¬ 
tian mystic with a confused mixture of idealist ideas drawn from 
any school, Pythagorean or Platonist, he wants to feel stirred and 
uplifted by suggestive enigmatic images or doctrines. In the last 
resort the ideas are playthings, instruments for his edification and 
for the display of his rhetorical and rhapsodical powers before 
duly dazzled audiences. We may take his first lecture as a sample. 20 

Stephanos of Alexandreia the Universal Philosopher and Teacher of the Great 
and Sacred Art of Goldmaking. Lecture I with God's Help. 

First we praise God the cause of all good things and the king of all, 
and his only-begotten Son resplendent before the ages with the Holy 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 

Pneuma, and we earnestly beseech for ourselves the illumination of 
the knowledge of him. Next we shall begin by gathering the fairest 
fruits of the work undertaken, of this very Treatise, and we trust that 
we shall track down the truth. Our problem now must be to proceed 
from a true theory of nature. 

O nature superior to nature conquering the natures. O nature 
become superior to itself, well-regulated, transcending and surpassing 
the natures. O nature one and the same yielding and fulfilling the All. 
O union completed and separation united O identical and not alien 
nature providing the All out of itself O matter immaterial holding 
matter fast O nature conquering and rejoicing in nature O heavenly 
nature making the pneumatic existence shine forth O bodiless body 
making the bodies bodiless O course of the moon illuminating the 
whole order of the universe O most generic species and some specific 
genus O nature truly superior to nature conquering the natures—tell 
what sort of nature you are. 

Thus he expands the triadic formula of Ostanes, but in a way 
which merely inflates and diffuses it, not a way that applies or 
extends its meaning. He now launches into a further ecstatic 
series of synonyms for the art of the Stone, the Egg, the Water: 

That which in a family sort of way \oikeios\ received itself from 
itself again, indeed that which yields sulphur without fire and has the 
■ fire-resisting power, the archetype of many names and name of many 
forms, the experienced nature and the unfolding, the many-coloured 
painted rainbow, that which discloses from itself the All, O nature 
itself and displaying its nature from no other nature O like bringing 
to light from its like a thing of like nature. 

O sea becoming as the ocean drawing up as vapour its many-coloured 
pearls. O conjunction of th <stertasomia [four-body system] adorned upon 
the surface O inscription of the threefold triad and perfection of the 
universal seal, Tody of magnesia by which the whole mystery is brought 
about. 

O golden-roofed stream of heaven and silver-crested spirit sent 
forth from the sea O you that have the silverbreasted robe and provide 
the liquid golden curls O fair exercise of the wisest intellects O wise 
all-creative power of most holy men O sea inscrutible to uninitiated 
men O ignorance seized-on beforehand by vainglorious men O smoky 
kindling of disdainful mankind O uncovered light of pious men O 
countenance contemplated by virtuous men O sweetly-breathing 
flower of practical philosophers. 21 

O perfect preparation of a single species O work of wisdom having 
a beauty composed of intellect O you flashing such a beam from a 
single being upon all O moon drawing a light from the light of the 






374 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

sun O single nature itself and no other nature, rejoicing and rejoiced 
over, mastering and mastered, saved and saviour, what have you in 
common with the host of material things since one thing is natural 
and is a single nature conquering the All? 

Of what kind are you, tell me of what kind? 

Genos, genus and eidos, species, seem to have a specific meaning. 
The genera seem to be metals which own a proper phjsis, a term 
here referring to an object in which the four elements combine to - 
characterise it and give rise to its properties. The species were 
such substances as stones, salts, and so on, which were not 
counted as bodies with such a phjsis. The system was worked out 
by the Anon in the 8 th century, but his explanation of the terms 
does not quite accord with earlier usages. Stephanos’ playing on 
the concepts of body and spirit, material and immaterial, is based 
on the fundamental alchemic use of these terms: the notion that 
chemical reagents destroyed the body (metal) and released the 
soul, but that the dead metal (some compound in fact) could be 
revived—turned again into a metal. 22 But he is as much con¬ 
cerned with the further series of ideas suggested. Thus, he is 
certainly thinking of the endless arguments on phjsis in theolo¬ 
gical controversies, on the relation of the human and divine 
natures of Christ. 

I dedicate this great gift to you of good understanding, to you clothed 
with virtue, adorned with respect to theoretical practice and settled 
in practical theory. Of what kind? Show us, you who have indicated 
beforehand that we should have such a gift. I shall declare, and not 
hide, of what nature. I confess the grace of the giving of light from 
above, which is given to us by the lights of the Father. Hear as intel¬ 
ligences like angels. Put away the material theory so that you may be 
considered worthy to see the hidden mystery with your intellectual 
eyes. 

For there is need of a single natural [thing] and of one nature 
conquering the All. Of such a kind, now clearly to be told you, that 
the nature rejoices in the nature and the nature masters the nature and 
the natures conquers the nature. For it rejoices on account of the nature 
being its own, and it masters it because it has kinship with it, and, 
superior to nature, it conquers the nature when the corporeal operation 
of the process fulfils the initiation into the mysteries. 

For when the incorruptible body is released by death and when it 
transforms the fulfilment which has become spiritual, then, superior 
to nature, it is like a marvellous spirit. When it masters the body that 
it moves, then it rejoices as if over its own habitation, then it conquers 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 375 

that which in disembodied fashion haunts the Whole which is begotten 
of the Whole, that is admirable above nature. 

What I say to you is the comprehensive magnesia. 

After he has worn thin the concrete formula by this tireless and 
weakening repetition, his conclusion about magnesia comes as an 
anticlimax. Magnesia is often mentioned by alchemists, but none 
of the substances they mention is more obscure. Plinius describes 
five kinds, which seem to be magnetic oxide of iron. But the 
alchemic material, which can be reduced to a metal like moljbdo- 
chalkos (lead-bronze), was perhaps a lead or antimony-copper 
alloy. It was to some extent volatilised by heat as we hear of 
“mercury from magnesia”. The body obtained from its reduction 
was thought to be equivalent to the tetrasomia or alloy of the 
four base metals. Here Stephanos seems to take it as the basic 
underlying substance of the universe. He raises the question 
whether the work of transmutation could be done by one eidos 
(species) or by several eide. There was disagreement on this point 
among alchemists. The fragment On the Assembly of the Philoso¬ 
phers , attributed to The Philosopher (Demokritos), sets out the 
view that a single species was to be used; but the contrary view 
is expressed in That the Species is Compound and not Single and What 
is its Management, 23 

Who will not wonder at the coral-of-gold perfected from you. From 
you is the whole mystery brought to perfection, you alone will have 
no fear of the knowledge of the same, on you will be spread the radiant 
eastern cloud. You will bear in yourself as a guest the multiform images 
of Aphrodite, the cupbearer again serving the fire-throwing bearer of 
coals—then carrying such a brightness from afar, you veil the same in 
bridal fashion, you receive the undefiled mystery of nature. 

Whereas Kleopatra spoke openly of the processes of coition, 
gestation and birth, Stephanos describes coition in a hidden 
allusive way, using the pretext of the bridal veil. The cup¬ 
bearer could be either Ganymedes or Hebe; the fire-thrower is 
Zeus who hurls the lightnings. As sexual intercourse is suggested, 
the cup-bearer is probably Ganymedes, who would suit alchemic 
imagery as being snatched up from below to the upper regions. 24 

I will show you as well the lustre of your nature, I will begin to indi¬ 
cate your multiform images. For then he who intelligently interweaves 
you that have fire without you, rekindles the fiery thing. Looking on 




377 


37 6 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

your many-coloured visions. I’ll be impotent as I circle round its 
beauties. Your radiant pearl blinds the sight of my eye. Your phengites 
[moonstone] rekindling astounds all my vision, your shining radiance 
gladdens all my heart O nature truly superior to nature, conquering 
the natures. 

You the whole are the one nature. The same by which the whole 
becomes the work. For by an odd number your all-cosmos is systema¬ 
tised. Then you will understand in what respects you will look ahead, 
then you’ll find out in what places will be your ambit, then you’ll stop 
the struggles of sedition, then you’ll disclose the kingly purple which 
also you’ll bring with your Maiden’s aid. 25 



69. The alchemical death of the hermaphrodite (from The Rosary) 

The struggles, agones, of sedition, stasis, with the following 
advent of the royal purple, seem to refer to the conditions before 
Heraklios and to his accession. In the preceding reign of Phokas, 
selected by the army, there had been a confused popular triumph; 
bloody clashes went on all over the east between the Blues and 
the Greens (the circus-factions organised as something like 
political parties), between the King’s Men (Melkites in Egypt) and 
the masses with their various economic and political grievances. 
Heraklios, son of an exarch, was finally sent by the magnates of 
Africa to overthrow Phokas and restore what they considered as 
order. As he was a strong supporter of Orthodoxy, the Maiden 
who helps to bring the purple was perhaps the Virgin Mary. He 
indeed had the role of Defender of the Faith forced on him in 
wars against the Persians, a crusade to regain a piece of the True 
Cross which was said to have been carried off from Jerusalem 


THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 

The piece was won back; the Persian holy-city, considered the 
birthplace of Zoroaster, was burned down; and the statue of the 
Persian king Chosroes (round which hovered winged images of 
sun, moon and stars) in the temple of the Sun was smashed. 

Then there will be, not the recent labour, but a couch canopied with 
gold; not a multiform ability, but an allwise sagacity; not a deprivation 
of virtuous men, but a fruition of perfect men. For such is the measure of 
it to be found in the Odd Number. 

The odd number is the natural monad, about which Stephanos 
elaborates in the opening of his second lecture. We need not cite 
the rest of the first one, since he now divagates into pious remarks 
about “all-ruling God” and links the divine water of alchemy 
with the grace of Jesus Christ that enables men “to gush forth 
rivers of living water”. Fie cries, “Why should we marvel at the 
species Chrysokorallos? We should wonder rather at the infinite 
Beauty.” It is an example of his distance from Zosimos or Olym- 
piodoros that when he goes on to discuss the monad he says 
that “it is so called from its remaining immutable and unmoved. 
For it displays a circular and spherical contemplation of numbers 
like itself.” This Phytagorean mysticism of number is as far as 
could be from the alchemic acceptance of the world of movement 
and change as the real world. Stephanos shows the decadence of 
the tradition in almost every respect. 

Indeed a neo-Pythagorean mysticism keeps on blurring out the 
alchemic insights which Stephanos glibly repeats and elaborates. 
His second lecture has many Pythagorean comments on numbers, 
and he declares: 

For they who pluck the strings say that Orpheus made melody with 
rhythmical sounds so that the symphony should re-echo the co¬ 
ordinated movement of the elements and the sounding melody should 
be harmoniously perfected. For from the one instrument the whole 
composition takes its origin, hence also the organisation of the articu¬ 
late body is ordered in the bones and joints and parts and nerves, and, 
by the plectrum of the air, given forth in the fashion of a moving 
instrument, a voice is sent forth to the One which is joined to its essence 
and which conquers and organises it by its own life: the very mode and 
blending of the air. 

For of two extreme qualities there is found one mediator and concilia¬ 
tor which preserves the qualities of both on account of its resemblance 
and close kinship to them. 














THE LATER GREEK ALCHEMISTS 


379 


378 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

There we see a deep sense of inner organic relations, such as we 
find in Galen, but also a collapse of the true alchemic doctrine 
of the fusion of opposites. Stephanos returns to the Pythagorean 
doctrine of a reconciliation of opposites, which Aristotle also 
developed in his own way: the middle-class idealisation of a way 
of life that kept down and controlled the unruly opposites of the 
aristocracy and the plebeians. Stephanos uses this concept, which 
ultimately implies the arrest of development, not its driving-on 
to the crucial points of change, in the key of his exposition of the 
emperor Heraklios as ending the “struggles of sedition”. Alchemy 
has become respectable and accommodated itself to the world of 
power. 

The same doctrine of arrest, which abandons the view of the 
world as ceaseless movement and change, appears in Stephanos’ 
formulation at the outset of the third lecture: 

How the [world] is fashioned and how the divine parts of it, being well 
purified, fly upwards, which, being level, draw up after them the more 
level parts. For the method mystical chemistry consists of symbols 
[here appears the sign for ouranos, heaven, and the zodiacal Scales], and 
what is required is operated by method. So also the bodies, made 
metallic, and being changed from the contrary nature, become by 
certain method level and aitherial. 

The term epipedos, level or flat, suggests the arrival at a space where 
the process ceases to operate, an etherial level outside the universe 
of change. The pantheist concept of Zosimos excludes th6 pos¬ 
sibility of such a conclusion. The “change from the contrary” 
has become here in Stephanos a change to a state where contraries 
do not function. 

Treatises were attributed to the emperors Heraklios and Justinian. 
A part of the work under the latter’s name survives; Heraklios 
was brought in because of his patronage of alchemy. The Anony¬ 
mous is a sciolast, later than Stephanos, whom he cites. He writes 
on gold-making on the divine water, gives the first list of oecume¬ 
nical philosophers; and feels nothing odd in mixing their names 
with the Christian Trinity and Biblical references. 26 Then come 
some late unimportant compilers, Pappos (probably of the 7th- 
8th centuries; Salmanas, who seems a century or two later by his 
style; Kosmas, round about 1000, who uses barbarous terms like 
salonitron , t^aparikon; Michael Psellos (1018-78), the famous 
literary man, who composed two minor and unoriginal works. 


which however helped to spread alchemic ideas in the West; 
Nikephoros Blemmydes of the 13 th century, an inhabitant of 
Byzantion, who still looked to Demokritos and his school; and 
nameless writers like the man who compiled a Lexikon of Gold- 
making, in which magnesia is explained in three quite different 
ways. 27 

We spoke above of the movement of serious alchemic work to 
the Syrian area. From the mid-5 th century Nestorian and Mono- 
physite heretics in exile had been carrying Greek ideas of medicine, 
astronomy, alchemy, throughout Syria and Persia. The reign of 
Heraklios saw the first expansion of the Arabs, who were soon 
to take over alchemic experimental work. 

There are also four poems on alchemic themes, all written in 
iambic lines of twelve syllables, with caesura usually falling after the 
seventh syllable. Each poem has the name of a different author 
attached to it—Heliodoros, Theophrastos, Hierotheos, Archelaos 
—but the style and treatment are so similar throughout that there 
seems no doubt they are all the work of a single poet, who had 
soaked himself in the writings of Stephanos. There is nothing new 
in the poems, but in many passages the ideas and images of 
Stephanos are ingeniously expanded. The Christian idiom grows 



70. The winged hermaphrodite symbolising the red stone (from The 

Rosary ) 















380 ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY IN GRAECO-ROMAN EGYPT 

stronger as the basis in laboratory-work grows weaker and the 
whole thing is conceived almost entirely as satisfying material 
for an allegory. The similarity of sound in baptein, to dip or 
tinge, and bapti^ein, to baptise, is felt to be significant; allusions 
to the New Testament grow more frequent; and mystical extra¬ 
vagances take over the place held by symbolic correspondences. 
Imagery of death and resurrection are dwelt on for their own sake. 
We saw above Theophrastos on the Ouroboros; as a further example 
of the style we may take a passage from the poem of Archelaos: 

Then longingly she cries at what she sees. 

Freed from her body, how may she again, 
she wonders, there remain, now spirit-like. 

So modified in shape and form is she 
no trace is left in her of darkening mist, 
no trace. Instead, she wears a splendour now, 
changing her murk fo